Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On Writing History

I have often come across people wanting to know whether a particular history book is accurate, or wondering whether a book is "Catholic", with the implication that if it is not, then it must be faulty.

Reality is not so simple. Very few history books (if any!) are 100% factually correct - however much a historian checks references they are likely to miss something, and survey texts based on the writings of other historians are particularly tricky as errors can easily be perpetuated. Moving beyond the facts, history is subjective. It is the historian's attempt to interpret the past, weaving the facts into a credible story of how things might have been. Different stories of the same time and place are not mutually exclusive, and two very different interpretations can both give an accurate picture because they are looking through a different lens. Both are true, as far as they go.

I am reading Yiddish Civilisation by Paul Kriwaczek, who summarises this beautifully in an explanation of why he has chosen to write about the positive history of the Yiddish nation and to largely gloss over the more commonly told story of persecution and catastrophe ...

Being neither a learned Jew nor a professional historian, I do believe that there is another story to tell. Not an exclusive story, for no story has a monopoly on the truth and many different narratives can be picked out of the same materials. None contain all, but all contain some, of the almost overwhelming, confusing, apparently random profligacy of fact and conjecture, evidence and guesswork. Picking a narrative out of history is like choosing a path through the woods. To decide on any one route between the trees means abandoning all others, to tell one story is to leave all others untold.
I wish I had written that!

4 comments:

Melanie B said...

oh that is well said.

Jennifer said...

It is a difficult balance. I have bought several books I found far *too* Catholic - there is more to the story of America's founding than the Catholic contribution. Perhaps variety is the key.

Love2Learn Mom said...

Wonderful - thank you!

Theresa said...

Excellent!Which is why it is so important to read widely and get as many perspectives as possible.