Advice History

On Historiography and Reading

I am often asked, as a writer, and as a historian and philosopher, how do I go about reading scholarly books and how do you trust them? It must be stated forthright here, history is a messy subject. Contrary to sophomoric views, history isn’t always “history” (as it were). Rather, there are historiographical schools of scholarship. The problem we deal with isn’t facts, per se, but the reception of those facts—the reception of the meaning of historical narratives composed by historians.

History is a living subject, not merely events that happened long ago. The events that happened long ago still impact us today. We are the byproducts of history. And history is often imbued in the consciousness of humans. We have a relationship to history: how we understand it, how we venerate it, how we deal with the memory of history—what Abraham Lincoln called the “mystic chords of memory.”

History as mere facts is boring. We are all familiar with this style of history. Select a date in the past when something happened. Nothing more, nothing less. Yet this is not what history is. History is a story. Historians tell a story. By telling a story a historian has implicitly inserted into their narrative what they consider important for us, as readers, to take away and wrestle with.

To keep things simple, historiography (the real study of history) can be separated into two schools: mainstream and revisionist. Mainstream historiography is about the generally accepted reception of history. Revisionist historiography is about an alternative, or new, reception of history. The debates between mainstream and revisionist historiography, then, is one of reception.

When reading and receiving history, it is important to be exposed to a multiplicity of different schools. Here historiography branches beyond mainstream and revisionist in a specific sense. There are many “mainstream” interpretations. There are often many “revisionist” schools. But the general dichotomy of generally received vs. novel, or new, reception of history, remains.

The art of history reading is in receiving the historical narratives as they come to you through history books. The art of assembling that knowledge is historiography. We are all, really, historiographers: assembling the reception of history we engage with. What is a reader to do?

First, as mentioned, it is important to have a multiplicity of views in one’s bookshelf. This is important because by dealing with the many different historiographical schools one can assemble for themselves the reception of history that one is invariably dealing with when reading history. Second, by drawing on multiple schools of interpretation and reception you broaden your own historical knowledge. Third, as a reader you retain your own independence and can decide for yourself which school (if any) seems best; as such, you’re able to assemble for yourself the narratives you’re encountering into a synthesis.

It is dangerous to just take for granted a single narrative of reception—whether mainstream or revisionist.

But not all historiographical schools are equal. Because of this, it is important to have the many different schools of reception as part of your library, or wealth of knowledge, because that allows you to see through the ideological imperatives that often accompany history. History is not neutral. History is not unbiased. Though we like to tell ourselves that. Only in having been exposed to multiple different schools of historiography does one begin to see the cracks of other modes of interpretation.

Trust becomes the final issue in historical receptivity. Do you trust the author? What motives does the author have? Why does the author tell the story they’re telling? All historians have motives. All historians are telling a story. The story they tell is just as revealing as the story they do not tell. If you’re well-grounded in historiographical traditions, then you can make judgement calls on whether the historian is trustworthy in what they’re telling and what they’re not telling. Professional historians are undoubtedly far more aware of historical research and scholarship than any lay reader is. But if a lay reader is reasonably well-read in multiple historiographical traditions, they retain that independence and can dialogue with the historian they are reading: why has the historian included this and not that?

When one trusts a historian, one is more willing to accept the reception of history that the historian has crafted in their work. This takes time. It requires familiarity with multiple schools of scholarship. I end up trusting a historian when I find the narrative they present as compatible with the narratives of the many other books on the subject I have read (mainstream), or when they make a compelling argument that seems plausible given the other narratives of history that I have read (revisionist).

Reading more is always better than reading less.

And when you read more, you come to realize which individual books (and authors) are, in fact, the most trustworthy.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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