Monday, 3 January 2011

The Pursuit of History (Third Edition)

I'd like to write that this was a load of tosh, purely because of the author's name, but in fairness to the book, I really can't.  It was wonderfully interesting, and I read much of it whilst on lunch breaks at M&S, which proved a wonderful antidote to the crippling lack of anything interesting or intellectually challenging that stacking shelves offers.

I'm actually quite getting into this whole historiography thing, really starting to enjoy looking at the practice of history and how it should be done and shouldn't be done and so forth.  I also feel like I'm starting to be in a position where I can start drawing my own conclusions.  Despite what I initially thought, it seems that the point of historiography isn't just to lambast those historians you happened to have a falling out with at high school.  In fact, Tosh doesn't have a go at anyone, and even points out the odd merit or two of psychohistory, which seems to be generally given short shrift (although he does go on to point out that it has its own unique set of weaknesses and runs huge risks of inferring waaaaay too much).

The section on oral history was interesting, postmodernism taken into account and explained without being resoundingly attacked as in Evans' book.  In fact, while I initially worried there might be issues in terms of him referring to 'modern' trends in history which were modern thirty odd years back when the book was first written, the last few chapters make it clear that it really has been updated.

I particularly, though, enjoyed one of the first chapters, which looked at social memory and how society perceives history as opposed to how historians say it really happened.  This theme was then picked up again in the section on oral history, making hte point that why people perceive things as having happened in a certain way when analysis suggests that they really didn't happen like that, is as interesting as the event in itself.  Why is the Battle of Britain in popular culture a David v Goliath contest, when the numbers of fighters were actually pretty similar and many recent historians have challenged whether it was even that close a thing as to whether we were gonna win?  Why does nobody remember instances of panic during the Blitz, instead subsuming it all into the wider Blitz spirit?  Tosh argues that social memory serves a specific function, legitimating current rulers and practices, as well as offering 'guidance'.  While no two instances in history are identical, he argues that history does offer suggestions of alternatives where we perceive no alternatives.

A very interesting book, not too theory-ridden, though it explains all the major theories well and assesses the impact and reasons for Marxist theories popularity amongst many historians.  I was also quite chuffed to feel that I knew the majority of the historians he referred to from my first term at Cambridge and other reading :)  Thoroughly enjoyed it, though it's not a book you can really read all in one go...  Needs spreading out, and the chapter divisions do this well enough.  One or two chapters at once is probably more than enough to digest at once.

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