ashthomas//blog: May 2005


Thursday, May 26, 2005

Noble Dreaming: History Writing in the 21st Century

Last week David Greenberg had a very good article in Slate about the differences between the sort of books that academic historians produce, and the popular history books that sell. In "That Barnes & Noble Dream - What's wrong with the David McCulloughs of history", Greenberg argues that there is nothing that should prevent academics from selling well, and there is no reason that popular historians can't produce good scholarship:

Instead of grumbling over the public's middlebrow book buying tastes, the best thing academic historians can do is to try to offer them something better. A number of our own practices lead us away from engaging the public as we should. I've seen students entering graduate school aspiring to write like Arthur Schlesinger, only to be shunted into producing pinched, monographic studies. I've seen conferences full of brilliant minds unable to find an interesting presentation to attend that isn't literally read off the page in a soporific drone. We write too much for each other, —and, as we do, a public hungry for good history walks into Barnes & Noble and gets handed vapid mythmaking that uninformed critics ratify as 'magisterial' or 'definitive.'

I couldn't tell you how many times I have ploughed my way through text that is as dense and thorny as a thicket that is supposed to be communicating some important theory or another and wondered to myself, "Isn't there a better way of saying this?" Historians, and other academics in the humanities, should realise early in their careers that they are not only professional scholars of the past, but also professional writers: an insight that isn't effectively communicated is worthless.

Greenberg notes that there is a crossover between popular and academic writing: some serious scholarship ends up selling well, and some books written by non-professionals become useful to the academy. The tradition of this sort of cross-pollination seems to be a bit stronger in Europe, where respected historians often operate outside of the university. In my field, I thinking of writers like Joachim Fest or Götz Aly. And even in English, some books written by journalists have acquired a high degree of respectability and are cited frequently--granted, the writers that I am thinking of (William Shirer, Cornelius Ryan, David Halberstam) are generally usefully for their skills at "telling the story", rather than insightful analysis, but there is certainly a need for the story to be told. Many of my students tell me they find a succinct summary of the events, a description of the events and the main characters, essential before they can begin to understand the deeper analytical and critical material. You need to know the story before you can start to analyse the story, in my opinion.

The thrust of Greenberg's piece is that both camps of historians, the popular and the academic, need to learn from each and meet towards the middle and away the extremes of dense analysis and novelistic storytelling:

The major failing of much popular history is that it betrays no interest in making intellectual contributions to our understanding of an issue. The Barnes & Noble historian seems to treat history as a pageant of larger-than-life events and people to be marveled at, rather than a set of social, political, and cultural problems to engage. Unless you wrestle with the ways in which the problems of the past have been defined, interpreted, ignored, or mischaracterized by other historians—the historiography——your writing will seem unsophisticated. You won't know which of your ideas are novel or trite, simple or complex, suspiciously trendy or embarrassingly out of date, or what avenues of research have already been pursued. Historians have to try to build upon what's been written, while keeping in mind that the goal is broader than just revising or applying other scholars' findings.

Greenberg's suggestions are useful, and academics certainly are the ones that will benefit the most from changing. Popular historians will always be bestsellers, because the public has an appetite for digestible stories and myth. If they want their books to have relevance into the future, however, they will need to be at least aware of the historiography of their topic and engage with it, however subtly. Academics, as well, need to learn how to make their work both interesting to and understandable by the general reader. Both types of historian need to take a leaf out of each other's books.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Collingwood match report Rd 9

In one of the best games of the season, my beloved Collingwood Magpies have just beaten the West Coast Eagles by 23 points. Collingwood has had a sreadful season, and this is just their second win after 9 rounds. West Coast, on the other hand, seemed to be unstoppable, having been undefeated this season until today. Apparently this is the first time in eight years that the bottom team has defeated the top team.

The final score was:

Collingwood 18.10 118
West Coast 15.5 95

Carracella kicked five goals and Tarrant three for the Pies. This game was a marvellous display of the future of the club, since many of our best and most senior players (Buckley, Rocca, Woewodin, Fraser, J. Cloke) are out with injuries. The slack was definitely picked up today by the young players like Rowe, Egan, and Travis and Cameron Cloke, and the remaining senior players like Wakelin, Clement, Prestigiacomo, Holland and Licuria proving their quality. This was a wonderful display by a team that has been roundly criticised all year, and it put a huge smile on this life-long Collingwood fan's face.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Architectural Secrets

This is a very interesting interview with the Booker-nominated author David Mitchell after his novels. This is the sort of interview that I like to read, a serious discussion by an author about their craft, about the process of writing and composing, and their intentions when it comes to what they want the reader to take away from their books. For example, here Mitchell discusses what he believes the essence of good story-telling is:

Fiction, I think, is all about people. In a way, it's very, very simple. You have someone that the reader is empathising with and doesn't want bad things to happen to, and then you either make bad things happen or let the reader think bad things are going to happen to them, and constantly make the reader ask 'Is he going to be ok?', 'Is she going to be alright?' When people talk about being glued to a book, each time I think that is what is happening.

And in this section, he talks about he calls the "secret architure" of his novels:

I mean the thematic architectural blue-print underlying the novel that not all readers will spot, but nonetheless keeps the whole book up. It's easier to explain through the books.

'Ghostwritten' is about causality and each of the stories is a sort of essay by example on a different theory or angle of causality.
In 'number9dream', the secret architecture is that each of the different sections are in a 'state of the mind' form.
In 'Cloud Atlas', the secret architecture is about different methods of transmitting a narrative.

An interview like this is rare and very welcome. It is much more enlightening and interesting than the usual puff pieces that newspapers and magazines publish.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

WaPo on The American Interest

Dana Milbank of the Washington Post writes about the press conference on Friday that announced the formal founding of The American Interest. The new journal rises out of the recent ideological split at The National Interest, and is symbolic of the growing distance between traditional realist conservatives and the idealistic neoconservatives. Milbank writes:

The split at the obscure but respected journal is a classic Washington brawl about ego and influence. But it also reflects the serious rift exposed in Bush's first term between the neocon-dominated Pentagon and the realist-infused State Department.


Both sides, naturally, say that their opponents are the ones motivated by ideology. Eliot Cohen, another hardliner who spoke at yesterday's kickoff, said he was particularly irked about a new column in the National Interest called 'The Realist,' adding: 'I was uncomfortable being on the editorial board of this kind of journal.'

'Laughable,' replied National Interest editor Nikolas Gvosdev, pointing out that three of the new publication's board members wrote in the past year for the National Interest. It's the breakaway journal, he said, where 'debate is going to be more muted.'

I was surprised to read that The National Interest is considered obscure. Nevertheless, I will continue to read the TNI and will definitely be getting The American Interest when it starts publishing. Any serious discussion of ideas is a good thing, and a new journal will just add to the number of ideas out there.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Six Degrees

Found out an interesting tidbit yesterday. Right after delivering a lecture on "The Origins and Implementation of the Final Solution", I found out that there is only four degrees of separation between myself and one of the instigators of the Holocaust, Reinhard Heydrich. Apparently my doctoral supervisor's doctoral supervisor was at Bletchley Park during the war, and he knew the Czechoslavakian agents who were being prepared to parachute into Prague and assassinate Heydrich. It is incredible, some of the connections that link people.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

NYer Reviews Everything Bad is Good For You

The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell reviews Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good for You. His review contains a very funny from the book that posits what a cultural critic would write if video games had been around for centuries and books were a new invention.
Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying—which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical sound-scapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements—books are simply a barren string of words on the page. . . .
Books are also tragically isolating. While games have for many years engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers, building and exploring worlds together, books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children. . . .
But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can’t control their narratives in any fashion—you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you. . . . This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though they’re powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it’s a submissive one.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Movie Review: Downfall

By April 1945, the Third Reich was a shadow, a wraith, of its former self. With the Soviet Red Army on the outskirts of Berlin, Hitler and his remaining followers hid themselves from the world and reality in a bunker under the Reich Chancellory. What occurred in this surreal and intense environment is the subject of the film Der Untergang (Downfall).

With an immaculate eye for detail, the director Oliver Hirschbiegel and producer/screenwriter Bernd Eichinger have recreated the final days of Hitler. The supporting cast of Nazi officials, Wehrmacht officers, SS ideologues and office staff revolve around the central, tragic figure of Adolf Hitler, played with uncanny versimillitude by the Swiss actor Bruno Ganz. Alternating between poles of euphoria and depression, futile hope and suicidal resignation, Hitler stumbles almost blindly through these last days, sometimes seemingly unaware that Ragnarok is going on around him. A few of his companions in the bunker share his delusions -- Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels and his wife Magda, with their six children, cling to the illusion of the Thousand Year Reich until the very end. Others, especially the military commanders trying in vain to explain to Hitler that there is nothing they can do to avoid the inevitable defeat, roll their eyes in frustration and discuss amongst themselves the best way to commit suicide.

There is a tendency to see the Nazis as monsters, as non-human creatures, or alternatively as charicatures or abstracts. What this film does is show that despite the acts that they committed, the Nazis were real people, with real human emotions and connections. To see Hitler show kindness to his secretaries, play with his dog, shed tears when a long time friend (Speer) admits that he is abandoning him, all this does not detract from his crimes, as some critics have argued. In fact, to see the kind and caring side of Hitler makes the evil side seem more dark. It is more frightening to recognise that the Nazis were not unrecognisable monsters or historical abstractions, for to realise that these were real people reminds us to not to treat the Holocaust or the Nazis as an aberration, but as a constant possiblity that we must be vigilant to prevent from happening again.

There is a tendency to demonise our enemies. We see it today in the War Against Terror, with certain elements of society treating Osama bin Ladin, al-Qaeda or Islamic fundamentalism as something incomprehensible. This film is a reminder that to fully understand the enemy, we must see them from all angles, not as monsters but as humans who commit montrous acts.