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A review of a review of a review of a decade

At the sister blog, David Frum writes, of a book by historian Laura Kalman about the politics of the 1970s:

As a work of history about the Ford and Carter years, there is nothing seriously wrong with it. The facts are accurate, the writing is clear and the point of view is not tendentious. Once upon a time, such a book might have been useful to somebody.

But the question it raises–and it’s not a question about this book alone–is: What’s the point of this kind of history in the age of the Internet? Suppose I’m an undergraduate who stumbles for the first time across the phrase “Proposition 13.” I could, if I were minded, walk over to the university library, pull this book from the shelf and flip to the index. Or I could save myself two hours and Google it. I wouldn’t learn more from a Google search than I’d learn in these pages. But I wouldn’t learn a whole lot less either.

As a textbook writer, I think about some of these issues too! I have two things to add to Frum’s remarks (which seem reasonable to me–I would go so far as to call them “perceptive remarks” except that I haven’t actually seen Kalman’s book, nor have I looked up Proposition 13 on the web, so I’m just taking Frum’s word for it):

1. Kalman’s book can’t be all facts, it must be interpretation also. Given my own struggle with the conventional wisdom in some areas of statistics (as represented by Wikipedia; see, for example, the footnote on page 2 here), I can well understand a historian’s motivation to get things right in a definitive article or book–and also a thoughtful student’s desire to read a coherent view of a topic rather than a mere collection of received wisdom.

Don’t get me wrong–Wikipedia, Snopes, and all the rest are great and are admirably effective in responding to controversy and quashing factual errors (see here and the impressive follow-up on Wikipedia)–but they won’t necessarily give you a clear picture of a complex series of events.

2. As someone who tried (and failed) to write a popular social-science book, I believe more than ever before that people like storytelling. If, like David Frum, you’ve worked closely with famous people during important events, then you can tell stories that are new and relevant. If you’re an academic historian, you’re probably reduce to rehashing stories that you’ve read elsewhere. (If you’re Doris Kearns Goodwin, you’re reduced to copying stories you’ve read your assistants have read and have inadvertently put your name on.) Rehashing stories is fine–it worked for Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Jeffrey Archer, and the people who compile all those joke books that come out every year. Not everyone can be Chris Rock, you know.

Seriously, though, people do seem to want stories, and the job of a popular history is to tell them and to put them into some sort of logical framework. Frum does get to this point–later on in his review, he criticizes Kalman for slapping down quotes without evaluating them–but I think he’s going too far when he demands that a new book help the reader understand “subtle, far-reaching, and perverse effects.” That might be fine but it probably isn’t what most readers are looking for.

P.S. I followed a link in the comments and found this review by Mary Dudziak. I gotta say, though, that the blurbs quoted by Dudziak do not convince me that Kalman is saying anything new or interesting. I mean, the idea that the “weak leadership” of Jimmy Carter “paved the way for the triumph of Ronald Reagan’s forceful conservatism.” This ain’t exactly a new idea!


  1. vimothy says:

    "Rehashing stories is fine–it worked for Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Jeffrey Archer"

    To paraphrase a certain statistician, Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.
    No. Just, no.

  2. Paul says:

    Reading for pleasure still requires long form, printed, well written versions of history, but the point about Google is an important one. More and more research is being done via search engine. If the book is indexed somewhere, then it's the fodder that makes that form of modern research possible. If it isn't, then it'll be increasingly invisible.

    Historians will write about Carter and Reagan for centuries, and especially with computers that will become a very interesting source to mine. Not so much for understanding the presidencies (which it will assist with, too), but for understanding each generations relationship with the past. Putting conventional wisdom down on page lets us look back and see how differently we view things in retrospect. A liberal social swing may see some generation praising Carter as a man ahead of his time. Then the pendulum will swing back the other way, and he'll be the impetus for Reagan's revolution again.