Reading for the Story VS Reading for the History

images (17)There’s nothing I love in quite the same way as a narrative-driven history book. A biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the story of the Sunni-Shia split, the Hemings family of Monticello: I eat ’em up.

It doesn’t matter if they have footnotes. It doesn’t matter if the scholarship is mentioned. I hate lists of “stuff that happened,” and I crave the individual stories, the representative samples.

That’s why oral histories are so amazing: they are full of reflection, of wisdom and beauty, all coming from lives that were once, astonishingly “ordinary.”

But guess what? I’m not an English major, I’m a History major.

History majors are taught not to read for the story. Not because the stories are bad (not at all), but because they aren’t trustworthy. The sources, all-essential to history–which is in its own way a quest for the truth of what happened, and what it meant–have to take front and center. Footnotes aren’t skipable: they’re where historians bitch at each other, and they’re both important and fun to read.

Oral histories have value, but they are weak sources. They are flawed, based on the ficklness of memory, influenced by bias and the madness of crowds. Memory is untrustworthy in every objective sense, but it’s all we have to go on, so historians approach with caution.

I get to hold both these perspectives in my head together. I get to enjoy the story, get caught up in the drama, and keep in the back of my mind the bias of the historian writing the book, or the lack of sources, or the flimsy citations, or whatever I want.

The story and the history are not at war with each other. They are working together, to create something that is not exactly either, and is both. That grey area, where the facts of what actually happen and what people believe happened meet.

So go read a good history book.

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2 thoughts on “Reading for the Story VS Reading for the History

  1. This reminds me of my two history university professors. One of them introduced history to us in story form, and the other introduced how history accounts are somewhat biased. I learned to loved history because of both of them.

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