Things We’ve Forgotten

Essay: Why You Should Read ‘Out-of-Date’ History Books

British Museum Reading Room
British Museum Reading Room / Wikimedia Commons
July 8, 2016

Over the long Independence Day weekend, the Washington Free Beacon published an essay by Waller Newell calling for renewed attention for what he calls the Next Best Books. These are works of history or literature that, while you wouldn’t file them away in the canon with books by Plato or Shakespeare or Hegel, nevertheless ought to have some claim on our lasting attention. Books by authors like Solzhenitsyn or Tuchman or Ortega y Gasset can help readers, especially younger readers, develop their political and psychological instincts, educating them about human nature, about greatness and great evil, and about what is required for a free society to endure.

Concluding that the universities have fallen down on this job, among so many others, Newell provided a provocative list of 15 history books "to get the ball rolling." The earliest among them, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, was published beginning in 1776; the most recent, Bernard Lewis’s Crisis of Islam, appeared in 2003. Most of the volumes are products of the mid-twentieth century, with books by Churchill, Robert Conquest, and Karl Polyani among them.

Given that these are histories rather than, say, novels, an obvious objection arises: aren’t most of these books a little, well, out of date? If we really want young people to understand why the Roman Empire fell apart, is a book written during the decade America fought for its independence really the best place to look? If Rome’s transition from self-governing republic to monarchic empire seems important for students to understand, what utility could be found in Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution, originally published in in 1939?

The same objection could be applied to most of the books on this list, or any similar list. In the years since these volumes have been published, hasn’t there been important new research that later authors have usefully synthesized? And even if the books have certain superficial charms that haven’t been improved upon—the rich skill evident in Barbara Tuchman’s prose, for example—a now half-century-old account of the start of World War One by definition cannot include the latest developments in the scholarship pertaining to that period of history, right? Not to mention the latest developments in our understanding of history or politics or human nature in a broader way! So, superficial appeal or antiquarian affectations aside … why bother?

Here’s why. The strongest point that can be made in favor of systematically preferring more recent histories to their predecessors is that later writers have access to more and better data. That later writers know more facts is generally true—though not universally, and certainly not before the era of modern western scholarship. (An interesting feature of medieval Arabic histories of the origins of Islam is that the later histories indeed tend to be longer than the earlier ones—chock full of inventions and fabrications that were passed off as discoveries.) But the flaw in this argument is the assumption that the main reason to read history is to determine the facts of the period in question to the greatest degree possible—to learn what really happened, or what von Ranke called wie es eigentlich gewesen (which sounds much more impressive).

While knowledge of facts is important, it is not the only important thing, and some facts bear more significance than others. Moreover, most intelligent people who read a book and then move on will forget all but the most critical facts, anyway. What they are more likely to retain is the psychological or political analysis of the author—his or her insights into the causes of events, or into why a certain sort of person behaved in a given way under certain conditions. This is why, despite their antiquated biases or lack of access to the techniques of modern scholarship, there’s still much benefit to reading Herodotus’ profile of the shifty Athenian politician Themistocles, or his account of the Spartans at Thermopylae; or to examining Thucydides’ grim observation that the Peloponnesian War began in part because of Sparta’s fear of Athenian power.

The benefit of reading history is only partially to be found in learning what actually happened, and maybe not even primarily in that. One stands to learn a lot about how to live one’s own life, in one’s own country—which is why there is still value, in contemporary America, to reading Gibbon’s analysis of the crafty manner in which Augustus' family consolidated power in Rome, by maintaining the "names and forms of the ancient administration … with the most anxious care," and by allowing the Senate to hold debates "with decent freedom; and the emperors themselves, who glorified in the name of senators, sat, voted, and divided with their equals." The result:

To resume, in a few words, the system of the Imperial government, as it was instituted by Augustus, and maintained by those princes who understood their own interest and that of the people, it may be defined an absolute monarchy disguised by the forms of a commonwealth. The masters of the Roman world surrounded their throne with darkness, concealed their irresistible strength, and humbly professed themselves the accountable ministers of the Senate, whose supreme decrees they dictated and obeyed.

Earned insight such as this is what elevates a work to the status of a classic, and is why, if forced to choose, Gibbon might be more worth your time than any number of more up-to-date histories of the same period. Also, in defense of superficial characteristics like elegant writing, there seems to be a direct link between acuity of insight and the elegance, economy, and perspicacity of a writer’s prose. Perhaps it is not a factor worthy of complete dismissal.

This is not at all to suggest that there’s nothing worth reading among more recently published histories—I am reading a brand new biography of Frederick the Great this very week, as it happens, and find it to be excellent. It is also not to ignore the fact that famous old history books are often shot through with ridiculous errors or even dangerous pitfalls—the blind-spots and toxic prejudices of past eras. Not long ago I was browsing in John Lothrop Motley’s The Rise of the Dutch Republic, and was struck by the racialism of his account of the Low Countries’ rebellion against Roman rule. For a historian writing in the young American republic of the nineteenth century, the convenient and somewhat nasty implications of passages like this are obvious:

[T]he Frisians, into which the ancient German tribe the old Batavian element has melted, not to be extinguished, but to renew its existence, the "free Frisians," whose name is synonymous with liberty, nearest blood relations of the Anglo-Saxon race, now occupy the northern portion [of the Netherlands], including the whole future European territory of the Dutch Republic.

But what is worse? Encountering in old history books the obvious prejudices of past generations and easily ignoring them while focusing on what is good, or reading what is published today without recognizing dangerous ideological blind-spots, because they are very likely to be the reader’s own in addition to the author’s? Many scholars today might respond that we are simply less blinkered in the present day than were authors in the past. I am inclined to suspect that we may just have new sets of prejudices. Even if I were to concede the point that some ages are more swept up in ideology than others, I see no reason to concede that ours, because it has come later, comes out entirely a winner, despite our confidence in the excellence of today's scholarly methods. Plenty of men have thought they were living in sparkling golden ages, when in fact all around them were the dull reflections of tin—they just didn’t know the difference.

Profound historical understanding may be more common, or more easy to attain, in some ages rather than others. But there’s no reason to believe we have a monopoly on it, or that our greater access to data means that the insights of the classic historians of the past have been superseded: indeed, too much data may be just as much a danger to good analysis as bad data. So the next time you are interested in the nature of collectivism, or the causes of the Great War, or the origins of fascism, don’t hesitate to turn to Solzhenitsyn or Tuchman or Ortega y Gasset. They may know some things we've forgotten.