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History students should probably read this
on 13 July 2011
Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations. Simon Schama. 1992
Is there any writer of history that captures the imagination other than Simon Schama? The answer to that question is probably a resounding no. His lyrical style reads effortlessly from page to page, each one surprisingly full of interest and containing something quotable.
This is quite clearly one of those books where the author has been born to write it. Schama shows us his understanding of what history is and means through the study of the accounts of two deaths. That of General James Wolf (the British General credited with success in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham for Quebec in 1759) and that of a death in the family of the historian of Wolf: Francis Parkman (the influential American historian who overcame crippling neurological illness to write some of the best histories of any in the romantic period). The more we read of Schama's reproduced accounts of these two deaths, the more we come to understand his general thesis of the book: That all history is in fact the history of stories. This is a great piece that shows the subjectivity of accounts of a different nature, the prejudice of the historians reporting the facts and ultimately the fact that none of us can know the whole truth of the past.
Schama's writing style flows with dogged enthusiasm and rises and falls to the occasion he is describing, surely if all of us were blessed with such talents then we would write substantially better. The extent to which we can take this as a work of history rather than a relativist treatise is up for debate, however I myself would jump behind the book, there are a couple chapters that don't quite fit in but we are shown how easy it is to rewrite history through our imaginations. We are certainly concerned with this now, every time we see a media report we are treated to this teasing gap between the event and its narration?
This book is ultimately successful Schama is by no means the first person to suggest that the imagined and the historical are more closely related than we think but here he has managed to show us this in action. It is also, unusually for Schama, thankfully short - his other attempts at producing short books have, by my library's reckoning, turned in to visual trickery of simply making the book bigger.