Case in point, a while back there was some discussion here about how to find good history books when I was ranting about Lied My Teacher Told Me and my issues with its take on US history, and a reader asked:
And so, where does that leave the rest of us who have only learned about history what we were taught in school...which it seems clearly can't be relied on.As I said at the time, this seemed like it deserved not just a comment in response, but a more lengthy consideration in a post. It's been rather longer in brewing than the result is likely to justify, but here it goes...
If we don't already know what happened, how are we to know who (what texts?) to trust?
It's this kind of thing that makes me (and others) so frustrated as to maybe just not care. Find a book so you can learn more only to learn that you're (again) being taught the wrong things.
There is not, unfortunately, a magic formula or vitamin pill that can be taken in order to detect whether you should trust a given author or book. However, I think there are some general principles that will stand people in good stead.
Know How Much To Expect From Different Types of Books
History is a seriously huge topic. Considering the number of people, nations, tribes, etc. that have existed since people began recording their history in writing, and the amount of time and space covered by most popular history books, it's not surprising that the more general the history, the more cursory the presentation of events and trends. There's an idea out there that there is a pattern to history, and if only one can get a good account of the pattern and some of the major events, after that one will simply be filling in details. I would tend to say that this is mostly wrong. To the extent that there is a pattern to history, that pattern is simply the effect of a number of details which, together, seem to form a pattern. Patterns themselves do not drive history. As such, I think it's wise to expect that the more general the history book, the more the author will attempt to fill in gaps with narrative. And that narrative will often be, to the extent it is a simplification (and subject to the author's interpretations and biases) the less reliable part of the package. When you read a survey text that cover a large stretch of land or time (as "The History of the Americas" or "Medieval History" or "The Modern World") what you can probably rely on quite well is the timeline elements of the book: Who lived when, what they did, etc. What you should regard more tentatively is judgements which the author provides. So, for instance, if you're reading medieval history, you can believe the author as to when the First Crusade took place, who went on it, when various battles were fought, etc. Things you may not be able to rely on as well are general statements about tone or cause which the author makes: "The Crusaders were much less civilized than the Muslims they were fighting." "While they had a religious pretext, most Crusaders did not go on crusade for religious motives." "The Muslims were more less violent than their European adversaries." Authors may or may not be right in these kind of judgements, and as you read more about a topic, you'll come to your own judgement on these questions. But it's interpretive statements like these that will often be most affected by omissions or biases on the part of the author.
Usually, the more general the history (the longer the period or wider the area it covers) the more you're going to be getting the author's narrative interpretation of events, and the less detail you'll be getting about actual events. These kind of books are still quite useful. If written by a good author (and you'll eventually develop an instinct for detecting these) you may get a useful interpretive framework for looking at a period. But even from a poor author you'll get a good idea of what happened when and who the major players were. It will thus give you an idea where to read further if the topic seems worth learning more about.
Treat general histories covering big topics as timelines and frames -- read books focusing on a smaller stage to understand people and events in detail. As you get in to reading multiple books on a given topic, you'll see what authors are living issues out or being one sided in their presentation. The more background you have, the more you'll have the ability to glean useful bits even from biased books which at least present new information about one side of a topic.
Primary Sources Are Your Friend
If generalized narratives are your enemy, primary sources are your friend. A primary source is, quite simply, what someone wrote about a place or event at the time. Now, of course, people at the time are as fallible as anyone, and they can lie or have strong points of view, and an author can be selective in picking his primary sources. However, at a minimum, primary sources give you an idea of what some people at the time thought. If you can then seek out people on different sides of a given conflict or issue, and read primary sources from both sides, you now have a moderately balanced view of the situation.
Watch Out for False Narratives
So having warned of generalizations, what are some of the false generalizations or narratives to watch out for? There are some common ones:
The Myth of Progress
It's undeniable that there have been certain kinds of technical progress over time. However, one school of thought holds that people themselves and society as a whole have become significantly better and more noble over time. This is, to my mind, always a warning sign. If an author seems to be telling you that people in the past were all dumber or more wicked than people today, then he's probably not giving you a very balanced view of the topic he's covering. And, of course, the injustices of the past (to the extent that they are past) are often far more obvious and egregious to us than the injustices of the present -- since everyone knows that even if those really are bad, they can't be helped.
The Golden Age Myth
Somewhat less common at the moment (though in various quarters you'll see it, say, talking about the American Founders, Classical Greece, the Greatest Generation or the '60s), is the opposite narrative, that of the lost Golden Age from which all subsequent time has been a devolution. Just as the author who tells you that the present is wonderful and the past was terrible is probably mischaracterizing both the present and the past, so in the inverse is the case with the author who is convinced that some specific period in the past represents the Golden Age.
The Enlightenment Myth
Somewhat related to both of these is the Enlightenment Myth (thanks commenter Joseph M for the email suggesting this one) which combines the two. In this one, you have twin Golden Ages of reason in the Classical era and in the Enlightenment (both of these being rather loosely defined) with an abyss of superstition ruled over by the medieval Church in between. This usually combines a blindness to many aspects of Classical culture and the early modern "Age of Reason", and also a dismissal of the many achievements and virtues of Medieval culture. (Depending on the book and when it was written, you'll find this myth in both secularist and Protestant flavors -- the common thread being a desire to see a thousand year abyss of superstition, popery and bad hygiene between either Classical Greece and Rome and the French Revolution or the Apostles and Martin Luther.)
The Everyone Fits A Pattern Myth
This is a bit like the world building mistake that science fiction writer Orson Scott Card called "it was raining on Mongo that morning": Just because one has applied some sort of "spirit of the age" to a period (usually itself a suspect construction) does not mean that everyone then thought a particular way. Some like to call the Middle Ages the "Age of Faith" (this is, I think, a simplification for other reasons) and the next step is to then assume that everyone in the Middle Ages was incredibly devout. Then we have the Renaissance, when suddenly everyone loved the ancients and wanted to be an artist. Then there was the Age Of Exploration -- when suddenly everyone was curious about the world. And the Age Of Reason, when suddenly everyone was living by pure reason. You get the idea...
Counter Narratives Are Almost Always Heavily Biased
This, I think, is where Lies My Teacher Told Me especially falls down -- as do other polemical approaches to history such as The People's History of the United States. When an author sets out specifically to write a counter to what he perceives as an established and wrong narrative -- and does so by writing "the other side" rather than writing a fully balanced narrative of his own, the resulting book will likely only be useful to read as an afterthought to the narrative it's critiquing. A counter narrative is necessarily only half a narrative. (This is not the same as a "revisionist" approach, in which someone attempts to lay out a comprehensive narrative of his own which is different from a prevailing one. This can, at times, be very successful. For instance, some of the "revisionist school" of Israeli historians have done the most balanced, overall accounts of the Zionist movement and the early history of Israel. Some of the recent revisionist approaches to the history of the Great War have also been very good.)
Beware the Prosecutor Historian
A history professor once told me that the best history is written when a historian can get the prosecutor sitting on his should to be quiet. It's when historians are out to explain just who is at fault in some situation that they often end up letting contrary information slip -- information which is often more interesting than the "they were bad" kind of judgements which often take their place. One example that springs quickly to mind is a highly opinionated history book which was in some other ways enjoyable to me. In Modern Times Paul Johnson's explanation of Communist Russia is that the communists were "gangsters". Indeed, he essentially dismisses any ideological content to their activities. The problem is, this is actually far less illuminating about the very evils of the regime than looking at how their ideology and their utter lack of moral scruple interacted. Simply saying that Stalin was a gangster does little to explain the appeal that communism had in many parts of the world in the 20th century. It also left me wondering how much Johnson was simplifying other matters I knew less about. A good book seeks to lay out as much as possible about the people and groups involved, what they did and what their apparent motivations were, and leaves the reader to draw his conclusions with as little generalizing and editorializing as possible.