Saturday, July 23, 2011

How facts spoil history books

The Guardian, UK (Darragh McManus)

No matter how well-researched and written, their relentless agglomeration of samey details puts me off reading.

A lot of men never read fiction. I know many who've barely glanced at a novel since school. If sales are anything to go by, they like factual works: biography, sport, science, humour. And a lot of history.

And so it is that – as with so many other things – I find myself out of step with my fellow males. I just don't enjoy history books, though I've made an effort with quite a few. They're too literal and linear; I find that the vast majority simply spool out information, doggedly and relentlessly – and often very samey information at that.

For instance I bought, then started, then put down, The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson. Reviews had whetted my appetite: the strangeness of the culture, the fetish for monument, the eerie death cult. The Ancient Egyptians hardly seem to be the same species as us. A fascinating subject, then, and Wilkinson's book is brilliantly researched and cogently written. The problem is, it's all more-or-less the same stuff happening to people, over and over, for literally thousands of years.


Anonymous said...

Men don't read novels: how is it that the Sharpe books are so popular?

Andie said...

I thought it was a bit of a bizarre comment too, because most of my male friends seem to enjoy just as much fiction as as non-fiction.

I posted the link because the short article goes on to disuss the author's criticisms of historical literature. Agree or disagree, I thought it might be of interest to some readers.

Anonymous said...

Weird article but the author has a point: "The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt" is not very good. Wilkinson should stick to what he's good at: early Egyptian history. The rest of his books relies too much on second hand and unverified information, like every other attempt at writing a complete History of Egypt.

Too much scientific specialisation makes it almost impossible for a single author to write a good one anyway.

Thutmose said...

I was amused by the comment about history books, "They're too literal and linear". Well, duh, it's history it is literal and linear. Now granted, a history book can be written in the old very dry fashion of dates and events, or that basic information can be embellished with true (aka literal) stories about the events at the time in order to make it interesting. This reviewer obviously has no knowledge of the subject by referring to the ancient Egyptians as people who "hardly seem to be the same species as us" and have a "eerie death cult".


AliceG said...

"eerie death cult"? Take a look at modern funerals! Hubby and I don't "do" funerals. If our daughter should have one for us, we WILL come back an haunt the heck out of her! "The problem is, it's all more-or-less the same stuff happening to people, over and over, for literally thousands of years." Excuse me, it's called history and it does repeat and repeat, until we learn better. And maybe even after that. Now I truly have to read this book. AND about all my husband does for relaxation is read fiction. He's 82 and been doing it most of his life. Most of our friends also are readers. We exchange books.

Anonymous said...

I fear the Guardian writer/reviewer probably has some hidden agenda, but having seen the scandal unfold about certain newspapers and their publishers, is that surprising? My late Grandmother used a phrase once to describe a newspaper article, "paper talk". CJB

Andie said...

There's also a discussion going on over at the Guardian, where the original article was posted, if you're interested. I'm glad that people have reacted as they have!

Anonymous said...

At the moment, we all seem to be aware of the influence newspapers have and, like MPs, the "ordinary bod in the street" is fighting back. If this encourages free and informed discussion, then it is an excellent result. CJB