Friday, December 08, 2006

Defining History and Adding A Warning Label

As most historians probably do, I have a habit of accumulating various articles that have piqued my interest over the years. In particular, I have a penchant for ripping book reviews out of magazines and journals. Well, every now and then I wade through the detritus. What often happens is that about 1/3 of the articles and reviews don't seem quite so germane or important as before. Of the rest, a few are digested and set aside for further reflection, but others warrant immediate action. That is what I'm doing now.

One such clipping was a book review of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom by Conrad Black, written by Forrest McDonald for the November 24, 2003 edition of National Review. I originally had kept the review because of McDonald's rather acerbic explanation of what makes a historian:
What historians do is make generalizations. They study and tke notes from the relevant documents and secondary literature. As they ingest the data, they digest them and reduce them to general propositions. When they sit down to write they select and report only that which makes cogent the story they are telling or the analysis they are offering. Two other kinds of folks who study the past go about their tasks differently. Antiquarians delight in learning details for their own sake and are likely to report them accurately and fully, if somewhat randomly. Authors of academic history characteristically record their research on note cards, arrange them in chronological order, and write by turning the cards over one by one. The results in either case are well-nigh unreadable.
Quite some time after reading McDonald's review, I picked up the book in the bargain bin of a local discount chain. (Mostly because it was big and thick and cheap and had to do with history, I must confess). I had forgotten what McDonald had written about Black's FDR:
Conrad Black's unconsionably long biography of Franklin Roosevelt shares almost none of the characteristics of genuine history and fall halfway between the work of antiquarians and academicians. Like them, he includes every detail, however irrelevant, though he is not always accurate and sometimes arranges his note cards out of sequence.
I have now tucked McDonald's review inside the book as a "warning label." I wonder if this might not be a good practice to follow in general? Does anyone else do such a thing? Seems like keeping a critique of a book that one might fall in love with may be a good hedge against literary or historical cupidity.

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