A Student of History

July 28, 2008

Why Historians Should Write Books Ordinary People Want to Read

Filed under: The Academy — John Maass @ 11:57 am

Check out grad student Jeremy C. Young‘s HNN piece on the need for academics to write for general audiences:

The amazing thing about history is just how many people want to read about it.  Step into any Barnes & Noble and you’ll find shelves full of glossy, high-priced history books on a wide variety of subjects.  Those volumes aren’t there just to fill space; popular presses literally sell millions of copies of history and history-related books each year.  While these books do tend to cluster around certain subjects — predominantly American history, political and military history, biography, and the Founding Fathers — there’s no denying that many lay Americans find history a stimulating and important subject worth spending their hard-earned dollars on.

The problem with Young’s argument, however, is that the he keeps going back to one simple (and troubling) point-that somehow sales of books at Borders, B&N, etc. should drive what we write about and study.  That ain’t the way it works, nor should it be.


  1. Interesting post John. Rare is the good historian who is also a good writer. Therein lies the problem.

    There are exceptions, of course. 3 of my personal favorites:

    Douglas Southall Freeman
    James I. Robertson, Jr.
    David McCullough

    Comment by Richard Williams — July 30, 2008 @ 10:52 am | Reply

  2. Interesting that 2 of the 3 writers you mention were/are not professional historians.

    Comment by John Maass — July 31, 2008 @ 8:51 am | Reply

  3. John:

    I assume you mean Freeman and McCullough? Freeman earned a doctorate in history and won 2 Pulitzers for his biographies of Lee (the definitive) and of Washington. I would say he was most certainly a professional historian, though not employed full time in the field.

    And though McCullough does not possess an advanced degree in history, his work would, in my mind, qualify him as professional historian (2 Pulitzers).

    Wouldn’t you consider Shelby Foote a professional historian? He never completed an undergraduate degree. How do you define the term?

    Comment by Richard Williams — September 16, 2008 @ 8:33 pm | Reply

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