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

Yes. Reading critically while your inner voice is cheering and laying out dessert is very hard. For me it’s a toss up between that and reading critically when a book is loathsome and howlingly wrong in major ways but also has some crucial data and genuinely insightful analysis.
I think an awareness of our own confirmation bias is about the best we can bring to any historical investigation - whether we're inwardly rooting for the slaves in the Third Servile War, or experiencing a general "ugh" feeling when a writer is obviously espousing a set of values with which we disagree.

I recently re-read A History of Venice by John Julius Norwich - he's been widely criticized by historians as bringing nothing new to the table, and regurgitating tired old tropes and theories which were debunked decades ago. He was a staunch pro-establishment figure - opinionated, aristocratic, conservative, a monarchist etc. I disagree with pretty much every view he held.

But damn, the man could write. Venice is a rollercoaster which still gripped me thirty years after I first read it.

And that's another problem. If a history book, however impartial and evidentiary in its contents, is boring then it can be hard to slog through it, and I get glazed eyes and start to nod off.
 

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Years ago, on another site, I got sneered at for expressing enthusiasm for a history book that this other person, apparently a historian specializing in the field, viewed as outdated and laughably wrong. As a layperson, I didn't know of any way to see how current the scholarship on a subject is or to see how well-regarded a history book is. And online bookseller reviews are badly compromised even just for general consumer purposes.

So, historians of ENWorld, if I want to read an approachable history book without being a historian myself, how do I know if I'm reading something up to date, or if I'm just filling my head with nonsense?
First off, people should not sneer at you when all you are doing is trying to learn about history. I was a history major in college and even Ivhave difficulty navigating the most up to date sources (if you aren’t at a university or college it can be hard).

First step is look for books published by university presses, that are written by historians (and you are best off finding books by people whose specialty is history, not done other academic field: the latter can be helpful but will just make navigating this harder for you). Second look up the historiography of the topic. You can find whole books that are the historiography of the topic in question but your local library will have historiography reference books arranged by topic (like an encyclopedia). That will give you the history of the history. I also recommend a general book on historiography so that you understand the different schools of thought (when you read a history book understand it isn’t the final say, that it comes from a school of thought and a lens; it is usually a good idea to read books with different points of view on a topic)

If you want something approachable, popular history books are fine. Just be a little more cautious with these and try to find that is written by a credible person

Also nothing wrong with old history books. I still like to go back and read a Braudel, gibbon, and Durant. You just need to understand the information can be out of date, the analysis not current. But those are still great works to resd

Also check out the syllabi of local history courses
 

Kaodi

Hero
We may not want to admit it while their descendants are invading Ukraine, but it was the Russians who sacrificed the most to stop Hitler (25-30 million dead), which naturally gets elided in American Cold War movies made while Russia was Hollywood's geopolitical enemy.

The Russians did not sacrifice 25-30 million dead to stop Hitler. The USSR did. According to this: World War II casualties of the Soviet Union - Wikipedia the Russian contribution was ~6.8 million military personnel, and 7.2 million civilians for Russia, and for Ukraine, less than half as populous, it was 1.7 million military personnel and 5.2 million civilians. So while it is true that the Russians did sacrifice the most in absolute numbers relatively speaking they are not that much further ahead than the people they are murdering right now.
 

We may not want to admit it while their descendants are invading Ukraine, but it was the Russians who sacrificed the most to stop Hitler (25-30 million dead), which naturally gets elided in American Cold War movies made while Russia was Hollywood's geopolitical enemy.
The USA certainly had to spin on a dime after WWII, and define its new enemy, and it's true that, as a nation state, the USSR payed the greatest price in WWII, but...

The European and Pacific theaters - and it was the latter in which the US was primarily focused - were roughly comparable in terms of the human cost. Casualties in the Pacific are actually slightly higher: more than 30 million.

"The Great Patriotic War" is only half of the story.
 

I feel like right now we may be at one of those inflection points in history where a lot of stuff is about to get reassessed.

But tangentially I think I have come to dislike the quote, "Those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it," because the truth is that there is absolutely no conceivable way not to be ignorant of history as there is a lot of history and our knowledge of it is infinitesimal by comparison. I mean, the quote is true, so to speak, but the way it is usually used gives the mistaken impression that there is some contingent of people that are not ignorant of history.

This is always an interesting subject. History definitely informs how I see the world. When you see something that feels like a previous incident or movement in history, you make note of it. But history isn't a lab. What happened the first time something like that arose, may not happen the second time. And, like you point out, there are so many variables one doesn't have access to, that there may be a crucial difference you simply don't see. Still I think the old adage that history doesn't repeat but rhymes is pretty useful here. I think what you can extract from history is a certain amount of wisdom. But it is like anything else, still subject to your own skewed perspective. Also uncertainty is a good trait in history I think. I am usually much more wary of people who make very concrete and bold assertions about it rather than cautious ones (the best history teachers I had were ones who readily said "I don't know" in response to a question from a student, because I think history is often a process of discovering what you don't know and then looking into that matter (which can be quite the rabbit hole)
 

Blue Orange

Gone to Texas
The Russians did not sacrifice 25-30 million dead to stop Hitler. The USSR did. According to this: World War II casualties of the Soviet Union - Wikipedia the Russian contribution was ~6.8 million military personnel, and 7.2 million civilians for Russia, and for Ukraine, less than half as populous, it was 1.7 million military personnel and 5.2 million civilians. So while it is true that the Russians did sacrifice the most in absolute numbers relatively speaking they are not that much further ahead than the people they are murdering right now.
It's a good point, thanks.

Though you have to admit it's not literally the same people.

I guess my point is you can't really find 'good' and 'evil' countries in history. We tend to root for a side (and that side may change over the years) because we're little tribal primates born to fight over land, but everyone's got their own atrocities, especially in war when the other side just killed two of your mates. We argue over the morality of the atom bomb now, but at the time a fair number of Americans wanted to exterminate the Japanese. One of the big things that started WW2 was the huge debt put on Germany after WW1, but a lot of the impetus behind the settlement at Versailles was anger in the British and French public at Germany over the war. The number one thing I get out of history is Vae victis.

And, as Bedrockgames says, there's a lot that will always remain uncertain. We only know of the Druids through their Roman conquerors and archaeological finds.
 

Kaodi

Hero
One of the big things that started WW2 was the huge debt put on Germany after WW1, but a lot of the impetus behind the settlement at Versailles was anger in the British and French public at Germany over the war. The number one thing I get out of history is Vae victis.
"High school history class," may not always be the most reliable but I actually remember this bit from an elective then: supposedly the French pushed for the punishing war debt not primarily because of WW1 itself but because that after the 1870 Franco-Prussian War that Germany had extracted heavy war debt repayments from them.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
The effects f that war debt is also vastly overvststed. They paid dod all of it and spent more on rearming.

They didn't want to pay it and propaganda took care of the rest.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
I once came across a historian in the early 20th century who argued it was unlikely Thomas Jefferson had an affair with Sally Hemmings because he was too "effeminate."

Sounds like a guy who's never seen Purple Rain.

Hip Hop Song GIF
 


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