Saturday, 17 November 2018

Book review: The History Manifesto, Jo Guldi and David Armitage (2014)

This book’s heart is in the right place but the authors just go too fast and the lay reader struggles to keep up with them as they progress through the story. I got about 30 percent of the way into the book before giving up. As an aside, I have two tertiary degrees so I am better-educated than the average reader of trade-market non-fiction.

The book tries to make a case for history that looks at the “longue duree” (a term coined by Fernand Braudel in the second part of last century). In recent years there has been a lot of history that is published that takes a deep, concentrated look at a specific point in history. While this kind of history is valuable because it gives you the kinds of insights that we go to history to provide, it tends to see the trees rather than the forest. There is still something missing, which these two authors want to recapture.

As I mentioned, this is a valuable contribution to contemporary debate especially when we are confronted by such gnarly problems as wealth inequality and climate change. It’s not the plan that is at fault, but rather the execution. This book is written as though the target reader is a sophomore student at a tertiary education institution, rather than an adult who has graduated from high school, which is the person it should be aimed at.

There’s another problem with this book as well, and it’s one that often scars books written by people who come from the social sciences: Latinate language. Most of the nouns and verbs and other words used in this book have roots in Latin. This is done by many writers in these disciplines because they want their ideas to approximate the exalted status of those that exist within the hard sciences, and they think that by using this kind of language you can help with that project. Unfortunately, this tactic has the unfortunate side-effect of making the language uniform and slippery, hindering the ability of ideas to gain traction in the reader’s mind.

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