The Narrative Tradition

Interesting dig at modern historians in the latest issue of National Review [subscription required]. In a review of William F. Buckley’s upcoming The Fall of the Berlin Wall , Peter Robinson (author of How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life) has this to say:

Yet the book’s principal achievement lies not in its comprehensiveness, but in the wonderfully deft way it presents its material: This is a small masterpiece of the narrative tradition. This tradition — the writing of history as if it were a story — began with Thucydides and survived every subsequent century until the last one, when academics spurned it, choosing to publish not narratives but raw material such as econometric studies and demographic data sets. History professors across America now pride themselves on producing books too boring to read. But The Fall of the Berlin Wall embraces all the virtues that keep readers turning the page.

I am afraid that Mr. Robinson’s dig has a great deal of truth to it. Far too many historical works are simply not accessible to anyone outside of their pocket of expertise. I am aware that scholarship must sometimes be difficult and knowledge intensive, and that only after such scholarship can the generalist come along and synthesize. And yet far too many books are long and boring not because they have to be but because the author is not forced to edit and polish. It is possible to communicate important ideas without resorting to dry and verbose prose. The degree to which historians have gotten away from interesting stories goes a long way to explaining the disconnect between the discipline and the public at large.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


  1. It seems to me that a history book can serve one of two functions. It can consolidate and condense and analyze the source material so as to make both conclusions and data available to other historians; or it can tell us what happened in an understandable, readable form. The former can provide an extremely useful service–to other historians. But only the latter has any value to the rest of us.

  2. History!

    Collected Miscellany has a couple of posts on the writing of history. The first points out that history is about determining and recording historical truth–not about exporting present day politics into the past. This should go without saying. The seco…

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