Thursday, November 19, 2009

What Should I Read Next?

Educated readers and students often ask, “How do I select a good history book?”

Michèle Lamont, in her new book How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts), 2009, explores how various disciplines evaluate scholarship within their fields. Drawing upon her research on grant proposals, she suggests that within the “humanities”, historians as a professional group are more likely to agree on the quality of a particular research proposal or its product, a book, than are other fields. That is to say, historians know a good history book when they read it. Understanding how historians agree on what are good books helps the non-historian in selecting books.

Why do historians have a wider agreement on superior scholarship than do scholars in political science, sociology, or literature? Dr. Lamont’s answer is no surprise to historians: history is evidence based where other fields are theory based. For the historian, evidence is always the starting point for any line inquiry. While explanations or interpretations may be subject to discussion, the discussion always returns to the evidence.

To illustrate, I have selected three recent history books: Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Alfred A. Knopf: New York), 2008; Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (Yale University Press: New Haven), 2008; and Robert D. Richardson, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston), 2006.

Those books share several characteristics. They are written by distinguished historians; they received favorable reviews in scholarly journals; and they all won the prestigious Bancroft Award. By themselves, those characteristics do not make them “good books”. Rather, it is something the books did that caught the attention of historians.

While those books are on different topics, they share important characteristics. All have extensive footnotes, bibliographies, and notes on sources; the authors explain their methodology; and all three ground their narrative and interpretations on the evidence, not on theory.

The heart of a good book is found in the footnotes, bibliographies, and notes on sources (also called the “scholarly apparatus”). The scholarly apparatus itemizes the evidence that Dr. Lamont recognized was fundamental to historical analysis. Moreover, the scholarly apparatus is the road map that takes the reader through the author’s research journey, showing what the author found and where the reader can find it.

Now that the reader knows where to find the evidence, let’s examine how the author uses the evidence. Historical research begins with a question. How well, if at all, the question can be answered depends, for historians, on the evidence. The evidence is specific to the question (time, place, subject) and can be extremely varied (ranging from private correspondence, to works of art, to artifacts, to government documents, and so on). Different types of evidence require different methods with which to understand the evidence. In the preface, the introduction, and often throughout the work, the author will explain how he or she used (method) the evidence.

In William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism Richardson lists the published and unpublished sources he used. A cross check of his chapter notes shows that every source is noted, frequently more than once, and often cross referenced to other notes. A second cross check of his sources and notes shows that while Richardson used both primary and secondary (documents and scholarship not written by William James) most of his notes refer to the primary (William James) sources.

Why do Richardson’s notes suggest a preference for the writings of William James rather than what others have written about William James? Richardson answers that question in the preface in which he explains that his book is an “intellectual biography” that “seeks to understand his [James’] life through his work, not the other way around”.

Without yet reading the 520 pages of narrative we have learned much. The author has asked a specific question about an important historical figure. He has given us the evidence he used and explained how he used it. By laying the evidence out on the table, Richardson invites us to join him in the inquiry.

Let us look at This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust. Like Richardson her notes itemize in detail the primary and secondary sources used. Her Preface explicates her methodology, that is, how she used her primary sources and evaluated her secondary sources. Before the reader gets to her narrative, there is no doubt about either method or sources.

The reader should now know what is found in our third work, The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen: primary and secondary sources are itemized in detail, the preface and introduction explains the methodology. Hämäläinen’s draws on a wide range of types of evidence, ranging from diplomatic records to ethnographic sources. In each case Hämäläinen presents his evidence, discusses how it has been used by other authors, and discusses how he uses and understands the evidence. Like Richardson and Faust, Hämäläinen does not discuss theories, he discusses evidence.

History books worth reading follow a standard pattern. They site their sources and explain their methodology. “Good” history books give the reader everything needed to evaluate the work. A “good” history book is not necessarily one the reader might like or even agree. Rather, it is a work that provides the reader with all the sources and methods with which to come to his or her own conclusion.