We academics are often like hipsters: we assume that if something is too mainstream, it must not be worthwhile. The popularists among our ranks are therefore often shunned. Even if public praise is offered for NY Times bestsellers, murmuring in the ranks raises numerous questions as to the “appropriateness” or academic prowess of such work.
Make no mistake: popular writing often oversimplifies the facts at hand and leaves out a lot of nuance. In my own field of history, this can sometimes lead to incomplete understandings, faulty conclusions, and questionable assumptions.
But here’s the rub: popular histories by journalists, amateurs, and grammatically gifted academic historians get people reading. They draw people into the stories of the past. They make it alive in ways that dry academic studies never could. At least not to the average reader.
Case in point: I’m currently wading through Steven Ozment’s The Age of Reform: 1250-1550. It is a prize-winning and solid piece of academic work about the Reformation. But it is also a bear for me to get through…and I’ve got a PhD in Church History! A lighter and more “fun” piece of writing would certainly be better for the casual reader. If the goal is to have as many as possible understand the stories of the past, why not do so in a way that actually lets them do so?
Academic historians will always have a role in offering high-level and erudite scholarship that will serve to critique and define the bounds of more popular retellings. But if they are the only ones writing, we are in trouble. Because when I was precocious and inquiring teenager it wasn’t high-level academic history that got me so excited about the past. It was popular writing.
So, my fellow historians: be careful about critiquing popular writing too harshly. Its absence would, over time, mean far fewer members of our guild and much less historical awareness overall. Our job is to make sure that history is done well, not that is it done only by us.
Four popular recommendations:
1. Guns, Germs, and Steel: All of history, explained. Awesome.
2. 1776: The epic year of young America.
3. Mayflower: The first ones here.
4. Horrible Histories: For the kids