As any trip into a bookstore will confirm, history has become, of all things, sexy. Of course, this might be wishful thinking on my part and it might really reflect a smouldering need within me to see a subject that has absorbed so much of my energy become fashionable. But these trips into book stores do seem to indicate that the presses are churning out a significant number of historical works with some of these even becoming bestsellers.
Now, as confessed above, I am quite pleased with this trend. I have been able to pick up a great number of these popular histories and thereby supplying my reading material for long trips. These books will typically address a particular period in history and they will usually try to find a novel spin that can give well-worn facts a new significance, or at least currency. Sampling these works has uncovered some interesting, although not too surprising, observations.
One observation is that not all such works are of equal quality. Fortunately, there are a few sign posts that I have found to be helpful in separating the wheat from the chaff and to do so before you part with your money or invest any time. The works that fall into the "to be avoided" category are usually easy to spot. The authors will very often be journalists who are turning their hand to history and expressly setting out to create, and cash in upon, a provocative twist. These works can be deceptive in that the journalist will usually have been supported by some researchers so a decent array of historical details will be pulled into service. But in reading the works, and this will be especially true if you have already been corrupted by some systematic historical studies yourself, it will become increasingly clear that the authors don't in fact know very much about the period into which they are venturing. The material, as a consequence, has an effect similar to eating cotton-candy - diverting but somehow unsatisfying (or worse). So where a work of history has been composed by a professional journalist who has suddenly found an esoteric corner of history to be interesting (or potentially lucrative), then reader beware.
There have been a couple of instances, although more rare, where seasoned academic historians have been enticed to quickly repackage past works in order to tap into the growing market for works of popular history. These are more difficult to spot because it will usually be academic historians who will have the deepest reservoirs of knowledge upon which to draw and quite rightly it would be to these people we would normally turn. One clue will be if the work draws heavily from material published in the past, or if the work has been published in its entirety at some earlier date. It is not so much the prior publication that is the issue as much as the nature of the originally intended audience. If a work was originally written by an academic for academics then at issue will be the readability of the work and very often the measure of intellectual ambition displayed. Academics, within their natural habitat, will be painfully circumspect and tentative and while we applaud this as essential to the advancement of knowledge, it does tend to bleed material of most of its practical usefulness or interest.
What we are discussing here is popular history that, in its best form, will engage today's readers in part by connecting past lessons to our current trials. It should, to my mind, help to ignite the interest of readers to discover more about the past and to build up a due sense of respect, humility and caution when considering how the past relates to the present.
I have recently finished reading a book that I would hold up, with several others, as an exemplar of popular history at its very best. It is "The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza and the Fate of God in the Modern World" by Matthew Stewart (See Amazon). The author, while not a practicing academic, does possess a respectable academic pedigree and clearly the work is grounded on his advanced studies of philosophy. The work bristles with the fact that he knows a great deal about his subjects and the period in which they lived. (I was further endeared to Mr. Stewart when I came across an article he wrote for the Atlantic (June 2006) entitled "The Management Myth".) This work is highly readable, engaging, instructive and at times quite entertaining (I recall laughing out loud as Leibniz pursuing his windmill project was likened to the all-too-familiar management consultant). I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in learning a little more about the intellectual landscape of the 17th century (which I am always encouraging people to do although with only mixed success) or interested in seeing popular history at its very best.