Philobiblon: The writing of history

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

The writing of history

I stumbled across Barbara Tuchman (which undoubtedly shows my earlier ignorance) by accident in the British Library, and immediately felt that I had to buy her book of essays about how to write history.

The attraction is partly personal - she is also a journalist turned historian, although I gather her "journalism" was always distinctly at the highbrow end - but also because of her theories of how to write history for a popular audience. She's into narrative, anecdote and above all humanity rather than theory.

e.g. "The very process of transforming a collection of personalities, dates, gun calibres, letters and speeches into a narrative eventually forces the 'why' to the surface. It will emerge of itself one fine day from the story of what happened. It will emerge of itself one fine day from the story of what happened. It will suddenly appear and tap one on the shoulder, but not if one chases after it first, before one knows what happened." (p. 23)

... and one of the best apologies for history I have read:
"Why is it generally assumed that in writing, the creative process is the exclusive property of poets and novelists? I would like to suggest that the thought applied by the historian to his subject matter can be no less creative than the imagination applied by the novelist to his. And when it comes to writing as an art, is Gibbon necessarily less of an artist in words than, let us say, Dickens? Or Winston Churchill less so than William Faulkner or Sinclair Lewis?" (p. 45)

She's also very good on the importance of an efficient filing system ... something that I must personally really improve! Now I'm off to try to find notes from a recent conference that might make a newspaper piece ....


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