Histories are among the many different kinds of books that I read and I've been interested in history and historical writing ever since I was a child (many decades ago.) But I have no academic training in the field and have never given a lot of thought to what historians actually do and how they do it. I have watched and enjoyed the film, as it were, but never stood behind the camera to see what the director, the lighting man, and the cameraman were doing.
This little book opened my eyes to the wider perspective. It gave me a lot of insight into the difficulties of writing history, the process, the choices that historians make, and the vital issues of how well or ill historical writing actually conveys the truth about the past.
Thompson begins with a discussion of Leopold von Ranke, a nineteenth century Prussian historian. Ranke laid down the foundations of objective history, distinguishing between primary and secondary sources, explaining the difference between published sources that may have been biased by a need to please the public or the censors, and archival sources, and insisting that conclusions be based on documentary evidence that any other historian could read and likely come to the same conclusion. It was a major step forward in our understanding of what makes historical writing valid and, to the extent that we may use the word, scientific.
But while everyone acknowledges the value of Rankean principles, it soon became obvious that different historians, for example British and German historians writing about the first World War in the 1920's could subscribe to those principles, but rely on different sources and come to radically different conclusions. Which one was objectively true? Becker and Beard in the U.S. went further to argue that there is no objective truth - at least not one that is good for all places and all periods. Each era must reinterpret history based on the ideas of its time and place. Others have gone further still to argue that there is no such thing as objectivity at any time or place and that good history is just a convincing story.
Thompson discusses all of these issues and explains the arguments and conclusions of the different points of view. While not whole-heartedly endorsing everything that Ranke said, he falls down clearly in the camp of those who believe that we can speak objectively about the past. We can never know the complete and total truth of complex historical events but we can get ever closer to it, and we can distinguish at least some valid conclusions from invalid ones, as we do more and better research.
That by itself is a valuable part of this book, but in addition Thompson gives us some insight into the actual work that historians do. He takes a hypothetical research project such as a young scholar might work on in order to write an academic paper and walks us through the process. Where are the sources? How good are they? What is the likely percentage completeness of the archives that we visit? Confronted with millions of uncataloged pages of primary source material, how can we find what is relevant or choose what to read? When we find a piece of paper that bears on our research, how do we evaluate it? Whom do we cite? How do we influence the publishers and peer reviewers to accept our article for publication (hint: citing papers written by the reviewers never hurts), and so on. So while giving us some of the flavor of the finished products, Thompson also opens the lid a bit on the sausage factory to show us how the products are made.
I don't know how many stars to give this book. I haven't read any others in the field. I can't compare them. I'll just evaluate it based on its value to me, a naive reader. I'm giving it five stars for its value in raising my personal understanding of the writing of history.