How do I know if I'm reading a good/up to date history book?

History isn't just a big pile of facts though, rather it's an interpretation of the past based on the available evidence. If history were just a bunch of facts it'd be easy and nothing about the past would be contentious.
This is very true, particularly regarding history, where you're relying on historical accounts (often written decades or centuries after the events, and centuries or millennia before now) combined with archaeological evidence, the latter of which often challenges the former's truthfulness and accuracy. There's also been a longer-term issue in history, associated very much with colonialism and imperialism, and flowing out of the renaissance, where certain kind of historical account, particularly those of Romans, were basically taken at face value for centuries, and well into the late 20th century. There are still a lot of ageing professors and intellectuals who are deeply upset that Roman authors who they were basically taught as if they were brilliant founders of the West are now being treated more like other historical sources are - with skepticism and an eye to what the goal of the writing was, resulting in a real view that a lot of surviving Roman writing was basically either propaganda or political point-scoring/posturing by elites who often didn't really know what they were talking about, and who were 100% willing to "just make it up".
 

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MGibster

Legend
There's also been a longer-term issue in history, associated very much with colonialism and imperialism, and flowing out of the renaissance, where certain kind of historical account, particularly those of Romans, were basically taken at face value for centuries, and well into the late 20th century.
I took a few ancient history courses as an undergraduate, and the instructor was very clear about just few few primary sources we really had. He said it wasn't hard to read every known primary source of the Peloponnesian War but good luck trying to read every primary source for the Vietnam War. When reading Thucydides, we were supposed to take into account not just what he wrote but whether he was excluding anything. Several of my professors stressed that there were limits to historical inquiry.

I rest easy though knowing everything Herodotus wrote was the truth. Even the stories that contradicted others.
 
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Parmandur

Book-Friend
I took a few ancient history courses as an undergraduate, and the instructor was very clear about just few few primary sources we really had. He said it wasn't hard to read every known primary source of the Peloponnesian War but good luck trying to read every primary source for the Vietnam War. When reading Thucydides, we were supposed to take into account not just what he wrote but whether he was excluding anything. Several of my professors stressed that there were limits to historical inquiry.

I rest easy though knowing everything Herodotus write was the truth. Even the stories that contradicted others.
I think everything Herodotus wrote is what he heard. Which is why he gives out some contradictory stories, for his reader to sort out.

Bit more of a pop journalist than a historian, maybe.
 

I rest easy though knowing everything Herodotus wrote was the truth. Even the stories that contradicted others.
You and me both brother.

He was a real one.

(More seriously even when I was studying ancient history it was pretty funny that Herodotus always came with a thousand health warnings from the teachers involved, but Tacitus? Not a one. Even Caesar only got fairly mild ones. And that's after things had started improving, in the mid-late 1990s! Greeks in general seemed to be regarded with far more skepticism than Romans.)
 

MGibster

Legend
I think everything Herodotus wrote is what he heard. Which is why he gives out some contradictory stories, for his reader to sort out.
He most certainly does. He'll tell you what he got this verson from one source, another version from a different source, and invites us to figure it out for ourselves. It really set the tone for future historians who present information in a similar way. Polybius was going over the early history of Rome and recounts one version where Romulas and Remus were raised by a woman named Lucretia (I think) who was referred to as a "She-Wolf" for she was free with her favors with the shepherds. HISTORY, folks!
 

Zardnaar

Legend
You and me both brother.

He was a real one.

(More seriously even when I was studying ancient history it was pretty funny that Herodotus always came with a thousand health warnings from the teachers involved, but Tacitus? Not a one. Even Caesar only got fairly mild ones. And that's after things had started improving, in the mid-late 1990s! Greeks in general seemed to be regarded with far more skepticism than Romans.)

We got the warnings tgat the accounts are just tgat and we're probably politicized propaganda.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
I'm not a historian, but I read a fair amount of history. As others have said, read multiple sources and check the bibliographies. Wiki can be great for sources to check out, if not always reliable for the information itself. But, if you're looking for a broad overview, it can be good enough. Popular histories, i.e. those that are readable by laypeople are generally the best place to start. It's best to avoid anything self-published or put out by super-small presses.

You're never going to get anywhere close to the definitive capital "T" Truth when reading history. As mentioned, there are inherent biases in every human...and all sources are written by humans. There's also the question of availability/number of sources (see the example above of the Peloponnesian War vs the Vietnam War) and what the author decides to include or exclude. Read at least 3-4 books on a topic and stick with what at least 2-3 of them agree on.

But a lot of stuff doesn't really matter. If one source says 23,209 soldiers died on a given day but another source says 24,000 soldiers died on that day...it doesn't matter. Neither author is lying to you, they're using different sources and/or using different methods to come to those numbers, or one's just rounding up.

That said, getting the date of a battle or some historical figure's dates wrong is definitely a red flag. As an example, I was reading a book on the Great War (aka World War 1) and it got the date of Archduke Ferdinand's assassination wrong. I put it down and noted the name of the publisher so I could avoid anything by them in future. Turns out it was a self-published popular history book. It ended up in my TBR pile because it was a gift.
 
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Fashions in history are as subject to change as any other area, and there is a temptation amongst scholars to throw out the baby with the bathwater when the next shiny thesis comes along. History deals largely with intuitive probabilities, and so my general advice would be take everything with a grain of salt.

My particular interest is in religious historiography, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean in the centuries around the turn of the Common Era, and it's reasonable (generous, actually) to characterize the state of the Academy regarding this period as "fragmented." Ideological bias is on full display amongst many scholars of this period, and my experience of those specializing in other times and places is that they are often equally partisan.

I would suggest, always, examine the primary sources. As far as any history is concerned:

Do we know when it was written?
Do we know who wrote it and why?
Do we know what "genre" the sources are?
Do we know how (and if) the source was received at the time?
Do we know about the wider literary and philosophical context of the source?
Do we know its provenance - how it came into our possession?

Corroborative fields such as archaeology, linguistics, genetic evidence, numismatics, dendrochronology etc. can lend varying degrees of weight. Sadly, IME, few scholars demonstrate a wide aptitude in utilizing all of the tools at their disposal when constructing an historical thesis.
 

Corroborative fields such as archaeology, linguistics, genetic evidence, numismatics, dendrochronology etc. can lend varying degrees of weight. Sadly, IME, few scholars demonstrate a wide aptitude in utilizing all of the tools at their disposal when constructing an historical thesis.
Way back in the day, I had a professor explain to be how, through the analysis of the glue in a bookbinding and the pollen in the glue, he could tell me that a book was made somewhere between 1530 - 1550, and it was definitely August of that year. All because of when the pollen of that plant would be in the air and settle onto the exposed surface while drying.

Fascinating what clues are present if you can think of them.
 

Autumnal

Bruce Baugh, Writer of Fortune
Adding a couple bits to the above about where sources come from:

Palgrave, Routledge, and Princeton University Press are also quality institutions who seem to provide a lot for my shelves. Never means they’re right, but books they publish are not likely to be wrong in common ways.

Age is a variable thing, and solid generalizations still have exceptions. Like, the foundational work on Aztec thought as philosophy (rather than theology, poetry, etc) in the century or so before conquest is from 1963! Most of the work anchored in still-current archeology and analysis is from the 1990s on, but everyone worth reading now still speaks respectfully about that guy. So the specific story of a field matters.

Speaking of which, the more you know about intellectual history, the more boggling Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris gets. He lays out generations of the future history of xenobiology in amazingly plausible terms. Fun read, if you like histories of ideas.
 

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