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

dragoner

KosmicRPG.com
"History is a set of lies agreed upon."
-Napoleon Bonaparte.

That said, from my university days studying history the three things most valued are: primary sources, peer reviewed, and a neutral point of view. Not that any of that will be perfect. I mean I just read a more modern translation of Sun Tzu, where the first half was giving context, which is cool, as well as they mentioned that there is a question if Sun Tzu even existed ...
 

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Autumnal

Bruce Baugh, Writer of Fortune
And point of view is negotiable. People interested in his topics absolutely should read Eric Hobsbawm, for instance. They should just keep his Marxism in mind and read work from people with other outlooks as well. Much of the interesting work like late antiquity and Amazonian societies involves strongly expressed and heavily discussed assumptions and methodologies.

(For behold I say to you, wherever a department gathers and Chris Wickham books are visible, there also gather interesting arguments in the footnotes.)
 

dragoner

KosmicRPG.com
As long as one isn't going to Tibet to find Neanderthals to prove something about primitive communism, Marxism is fine. I mean someone can still have a neutral point of view, while believing in central planning and Hegelian dialectical. A lot of people say capitalism, and aren't going to talk about where Smith was accused of class war because he didn't like the idea of the wealthy manipulating, or interfering in the market by investment. Mostly they are just being patriotic and that is cool; to quote Tacitus: "A traitor is hated even by those they serve."

Libraries can be rather golden for history books as well as small university imprints can be expensive such as $60 for a not very big book, even used.
 

MGibster

Legend
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 sticking with what at least 2-3 of them agree on.
"If it's truth you're looking for, Dr. Tyree's philosophy class is right down the hall." -- Dr. Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982).

Here's an actual exchange between a student and one of my professors in one of my American history courses.

Student: "So you're saying history is a bunch of naughty word?"

Professor: "Yes. But it's well constructed naughty word."

Ancient British history isn't my forte, but this nice young lady talks about Boudica and how historians have used her story for their own political goals over the years.

 

TheSword

Legend
Not a professional historian, but I studied a Masters degree. So take this with a pinch of salt. I’m also not at all familiar with academics around ancient history so may be relevant to that maybe not.

Lots of stuff said already is very valid. I would just add a few extra things to consider. Assuming you’re reading modern history books there are a few major trends that have altered historiography (the study of historians and their methods).

- Marxism. Had a big impact on perspective - looking at the lives and impact of events on ordinary people (history from below) not just the very rich and famous which tended to consume previous history books.

- Feminism. Started looking at the impact of women in history and how women were effected by events. often overlooked before by historians.

- Black history and the wider topic of colonialism examining the lives of black people, indigenous people or indeed any ethnicity not currently considered seriously.

There are other movements like these ones, these are just the three I was taught about. But it just goes to show that history is more than just regurgitating facts. It involves making decisions on impact and that requires assessment and perspective.

Aside from these there are often big discoveries (or small discoveries that make big impacts) on a particular topic. That might cause historians to re-evaluate. If they’re still alive then often a writer will sometimes release a new edition if it’s possible to or relevant. This is very hard to know in advance without knowing the topic very well. Obviously the more recent the book the more likely it is to take into account these bits.

A few things I would look at. What is the date of publication. If it was earlier it may not be considering history from below or the impact of women. Even later books may not be considering the impact of ethinicity. Look at up to date academic reviews (as opposed to google) to see the treatment of new discoveries or lack of.

All that said, there are some big books that have stood the test of time that make excellent primers. Sometimes more recent books are just filling the gaps that haven’t been written yet and can sometimes focus on one area under the assumption that the facts in the preceding works are already known. These issues tend to crop up the more academic the work is. If the author has written a preface it will normally address issues like this though, or sometimes in the first chapter.

TLDR. There was a point at which your history book was almost guaranteed to be written by a rich, white man. It doesn’t mean that weren’t a great historian or writer. Its just means elements of what they’re writing about might need to be reconsidered in the light of progressive movements or new discoveries.

All of these things doesn’t mean a book can’t be an enjoyable read. It just means you have to be aware you might not be getting the full picture. Sometimes it’s good if you have time and inclination to read an alternative. For instance I’ve just finished reading this week the excellent ‘Napoleon the Great’ by Andrew Roberts. I’m now looking for a slightly more critical version for a different perspective. Anyway have fun with it, it’s a great subject.
 
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billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him)
All of these things doesn’t mean a book can’t be an enjoyable read. It just means you have to be aware you might not be getting the full picture. Sometimes it’s good if you have time and inclination to read an alternative. For instance I’ve just finished reading this week the excellent ‘Napoleon the Great’ by Andrew Roberts. I’m now looking for a slightly more critical version for a different perspective. Anyway have fun with it, it’s a great subject.
Yeah, I’m quoting this for emphasis. If a topic intrigues you, pursue different treatments of it by different authors. You’ll often get some interesting differing perspectives that will texture your understanding.
 

Ancient British history isn't my forte, but this nice young lady talks about Boudica and how historians have used her story for their own political goals over the years.
It's still going on. There's been a lot of wild special pleading in the last thirty years about how Boudicca was "really the baddy" from all sorts of people (particularly UK writers who are not historians or are pop-historians) who otherwise critique imperialism/colonialism because they're seemingly desperate (for unclear reasons) to paint the destruction of Colchester as mean and bad, when ten minutes later they're turning around and praising (for example) various bloody rebellions against the British empire. I think it says something weird about the character of the British establishment and particularly people educated within that framework that it's vital to them that the Romans are "flawed good guys", even though they'll happily critique the British empire (which I swear links to good old-fashioned British self-deprecation).

It's like, I can completely understand being neutral about it, it's nearly 2000 years ago, and I could also understand when, in some Empire periods, they tried to make her bad because the British saw themselves as the Romans (though weirdly more often they tried to make her good and just play down the anti-colonial aspects), but this whole 21st century thing where she's supposed to be bad because she burned a city and killed some civilians? That's so weird. What do they think the Romans did lol? Come with flowers and wine and lovely hot baths for all? To hear some upper-middle-class British authors tell it, you'd think so! I've been trying to figure out the agenda here for years, as best I can tell they see the Romans are orderly and representing the cosmopolitan, diverse and worldly, and the Celts are chaotic and representing nativist sentiments (?!?! nonsensical but there we are) so are siding with horrifically violent colonial oppressor of precisely the kind they critique in other situations. It's also somewhat obviously racist, because other ancient cosmopolitan empires not run by groups perceived as White don't get the same benefit (c.f Xerxes/Persia for example).
 

It's still going on. There's been a lot of wild special pleading in the last thirty years about how Boudicca was "really the baddy" from all sorts of people (particularly UK writers who are not historians or are pop-historians) who otherwise critique imperialism/colonialism because they're seemingly desperate (for unclear reasons) to paint the destruction of Colchester as mean and bad, when ten minutes later they're turning around and praising (for example) various bloody rebellions against the British empire.
Boudic(c)a's history is a great example of dubious (really, nonexistent) primary sources. We have Tacitus and Suetonius writing 30-60 years after purported events (which they did not witness), and Cassius Dio 150 (!) years later.

Don't trust any of it. Did something happen? - sure. Can we know its nature? - no.

Writers in Antiquity did not practice history as we know it today. They told stories, usually with an eye to gaining the favour of whoever sponsored them.
 

Don't trust any of it. Did something happen? - sure. Can we know its nature? - no.
I feel like with that attitude towards sources, you basically have to ignore almost all history written up until like, the High Middle Ages in most of Europe (in China you can start a lot earlier), and to rely on archaeology exclusively. Which y'know, fair position and some have taken it before but it's quite a hot take overall.

Personally, I'd Tacitus is unlikely to be outright lying, especially the event happened when he was 5 and his dad was the governor of Britain when Tacitus was a young man. He'll be spinning and giving Tacitus' perspective and one influenced by the audience he's writing for (I think largely elite Romans). He also paints the Romans in a fairly negative/incompetent light which is somewhat unusual and gives a least a smidge more believability to his account (which is going to be third-hand certainly).

Colchester has a destruction layer at exactly that time so at a minimum I think we can confirm that part was true. If we ever find the battlefield of the final battle (which could happen), and it matches up at all, then that's going to add a fair bit more credence.

Cassius Dio for sure I wouldn't trust much of what he says because he's a well-demonstrator maker-upper of "facts" across almost everything he wrote about.
 

I feel like with that attitude towards sources, you basically have to ignore almost all history written up until like, the High Middle Ages in most of Europe (in China you can start a lot earlier), and to rely on archaeology exclusively. Which y'know, fair position and some have taken it before but it's quite a hot take overall.

Personally, I'd Tacitus is unlikely to be outright lying, especially the event happened when he was 5 and his dad was the governor of Britain when Tacitus was a young man. He'll be spinning and giving Tacitus' perspective and one influenced by the audience he's writing for (I think largely elite Romans). He also paints the Romans in a fairly negative/incompetent light which is somewhat unusual and gives a least a smidge more believability to his account (which is going to be third-hand certainly).

Colchester has a destruction layer at exactly that time so at a minimum I think we can confirm that part was true. If we ever find the battlefield of the final battle (which could happen), and it matches up at all, then that's going to add a fair bit more credence.

Cassius Dio for sure I wouldn't trust much of what he says because he's a well-demonstrator maker-upper of "facts" across almost everything he wrote about.
Tacitus was regarded as generally reliable - at least in the broad strokes - for a long time, although a lot of criticism has been directed toward him in recent years (his anti-Tiberian rhetoric, confusion of some historical figures etc.). I'm not suggesting we throw him out - he's still the best of a sketchy bunch - but the storytelling flourishes ("Calusidius offered him a drawn sword saying that it was sharper than his own"), and his very purposeful use of language to direct the reader to certain conclusions are problematic.

With regard to Boudica, we might imagine that Agricola, his father-in-law, regaled Tacitus with stories of his youthful campaigning, and, while plausible, we're really just adding to the fiction by evoking that scene. What we do know is that leaning into the literary trope of a doomed barbarian warrior-queen leading a popular uprising makes a damned good read. We know that Colchester, London and St Albans were all burned (the "Boudican Destruction Horizon"), but we can't really know the precise circumstances. We don't really even know Boudica's name ("Victorious" might be a title, or an aspirational idea).

I don't necessarily think that Boudica is insufficiently attested - I'm just suspicious that her character might be a literary distillation of the complex events surrounding a violent uprising.
 

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