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Mismash of uneven writing
on 16 August 2001
I'm a half-educated American, with the vaguest notions of British history. I bought this book hoping to be able to understand the story of the British Isles, in a more or less clear outline. That didn't happen: after 200 pages, I tossed the book, wondering just who it was written for. Here's why I tossed it:
(1) It doesn't have an author. Instead, it has a bunch of authors, each apparently assigned a certain portion of British history to cover. The problem is that none of the authors seem to have consulted each other, nor did the editor seem to edit. On every other page, you see a fact or definition repeated (by a previous author), or a topic referenced (but uncovered by a previous author). History is a messy thing, but it has to be organized to be learned, and any hope of presenting material in terms of themes or movements is lost, because styles and approaches switch radically from author to author, from clear and sparse, to confusing and overly-detailed.
(2) It should have an author. This sounds like point (1), but hear me out: the editor, Mr. Morgan, claims that writing grand history, spanning the length of the British past, just can't be written anymore. It is better, rather, to have specialists write about their specialities. Sounds good in theory, but is just abominable when placed next to comprehensive histories written by single authors. Toynbee and Trevleyan wrote such history earlier. And J. Roberts writes such history now, particularly his History of Europe, and History of the World, two models of lucid historical writing that make this disjointed compilation look like an ill-considered mishmash.
(3) It should have an audience. Or at least a different audience: the average intelligent reader wants a clean, interesting exposition of the important events and currents of the past. While some chapters achieve that, most seem to be written not to the Average Reader, but to the Rival Colleague. And so we see a few facts casually presented, and then a sudden digression into some piece of scholarly minutae that leaves the reader (me, that is) pexplexed.
(4) It should teach historical knowledge, not assume it. This is one of those histories that assumes from the onset that you know all the relevant history. That might be OK for a narrow scholarly article, but it's an awful presumption for a comprehensive history. I read dozens of pages discussing the 'Domesday Book,' its importance, and its effects. The authors never thought to enlighten the ignorant, and explain what this Domesday Book was (an very old tax survey). Things like this litter every page.
From previous reading, I've learned that good history can be written. From reading this, I've learned that very bad history can be written, too.