A curious thing happened today when I looked up a book on Amazon.com. I was reading Sometimes an Art, a book about history by the great historian Bernard Bailyn. I felt the book was pretty dry, uninspiring, and out-of-date. Certainly, it doesn’t match the quality of Bailyn’s other words, which have garnered him all of the top prizes. This book is a collection of his old essays, more or less thrown together under the umbrella topic of historical methods. It’s the kind of book that a press might only consider if the writer is already successful. (See similar ones from Gordon Wood and Carlo Ginzburg). At the bottom of the cover of my edition, the book reads “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.” Of course, it is Bailyn who is the winner of a Pulitzer Prize, not this book, but that’s a clever marketing technique.
The amazon.com reviews for Bailyn’s Sometimes an Art are almost entirely positive. Of the 9 reviews, 5 give it 5 stars, and 4 give it 4 stars.
You can see something similar in the amazon ratings of plenty of other less-than-stellar history methods books. Gordon Wood’s The Purpose of the Past, 4 out 5 stars. John Arnold’s History, a Short Introduction, 4.5. out of 5. Anna Green’s The Houses of History, 4 stars. Popkin, From Herodotus to H-Net, 5 stars. Martha Howell, From Reliable Sources, 4 out of 5. Although these books receive high ratings, there are few substantive reviews of them. What is common among them all, in addition to their high ratings and similar subject matter, is that they are all very average books, all saying more or less the same thing, all competing for the same audience. No reviewer seems to recognize how little is actually new in any of them.
Take, on the other hand, what I think are some of the better books in this field: Gaddis, The Landscape of History, 4 out of 5 stars, John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, 4 out of 5 stars; Evans, a Defense of History, 4 out of 5 stars, etc., etc. etc. Each of these has something to say: Gaddis has an interesting connection to draw between history and the natural sciences (not the social sciences!), Tosh treats the approaches are engaged in a debate, Evans pushes back against postmodern trends in historiography.
It seems, though, that no matter the quality or reputation of the author, books on historical methods are routinely rated high.
I have a few explanations for this. First of all, people generally like history, and these books, despite their redundancies, do indeed teach readers something new about history. Students who were worried that they might be bored by a history book, find reading about the professional activity of history-writing more interesting than the K-12 activity of history-learning. Fair enough.
It may also be the case that a reverence for history is at work. Readers want to show that they connect to and appreciate this next-level of abstraction, from basic narrative history to a discussion about how historians go about their business.
It also seems, however, that professional historians and critics aren’t reading or aren’t responding here to works in this genre. Perhaps because they see these books as harmless, without too great an ideological bias, no one steps up to swat them down. It would be useful, however, for some critic to provide substantive reviews, to steer readers towards the better works in the genre.
Do my readers have other explanations? Aggregation bias?
Here are a few of my favorites in historical methods, theory, and historiography, in no particular order:
1). Robin Winks, The Historian as Detective (1969)
2.) Stephen Davies, Empiricism and History (2003)
3.) Ludwig von Mises, Theory and History (1957)
4.) Peter Burke, The French Historical Revolution (1990)
5.) Peter Burke, Sociology and History
6.) Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station (1953)
7.) Patrick Gardiner, Theories of History (1959)
8.) Herman Paul, Key Issues in Historical Theory (2015)
Clearly, my preference is for older works of this type. Usually it is because the bar for publication was higher in those days, and they weren’t being watered down to market as textbooks to undergrads. I am pessimistic about the type of history methods and research guides that are now common, those that take students through the steps of becoming a historian, as if there is any one path, and as if that path can be prescribed.
To me, historians are made in the archives. Their motivations never come from research guides, but from experiences learning history on their own. Once inspired to work as a historian, and once they have gathered practical experiences, then it becomes time to ask some of the deeper questions about history and theory, and about the philosophy of history. Studying the history of history, even the history of historiography, the history of the philosophy of history, is like insider baseball, but it is eminently useful for practicing historians to think through what it is that they are doing.
My point, to conclude, is that history methods books presented as textbooks, with all-inclusive guides are self-defeating. I doubt they inspire new historians.