Reading History.

This is not a book review, but an extract from a book. In Adler and Van Doren’s How to Read a Book, there’s a chapter entitled, “How to Read History,” with additional suggestions for reading biographies, autobiographies, current events, and digests, all of which can have a bearing on how history is presented. What follows is my outline of the authors’ general advice about reading history, as it appears in the 1972 edition.


  1. The word, “history,” has many meanings
  2. History as fact (which, strictly speaking, can’t be “read”)
  3. History as a written record of facts
    • Collections of documents
    • Transcriptions of interviews
    • Diaries
    • Letters
    • Almost any kind of writing originating at the time, or in the context of an event
  4. History as a narrative account or other presentation of a past period, event, or series of events, delivered in a way that tells a story

The Elusiveness of Historical Facts

  1. It’s difficult to reconstruct even one past event from the memories of those who witnessed it
    • Historical events happened a long time ago
    • Most, if not all, of the witnesses are dead
    • The information provided by witnesses was usually not given in a courtroom, under the rules of evidence
    • Witnesses may have guessed, hypothecated, estimated, assumed, supposed, lied, or didn’t know what they were talking about
  2. Dates and places of events are the most likely to be reliable historical facts
  3. History is more than just dates and places
    • The meaning of dates and places as the “beginning” and “end” of events is often disputed
    • Why did the event occur?
    • Could subsequent events have been avoided?
    • If subsequent events had been avoided, who would care about the event under consideration?
    • If nobody cared about it, would it still be an important historical fact?

Theories of History

  1. Classifying history
    • History as fiction
    • History between fiction and science, but closer to fiction than to science
  2. Historians don’t make up the facts
    • Historians don’t invent the past
    • Historians’ work is governed by some rule for accuracy or facts
  3. Historians must make something of the facts
    • Find or impose a pattern on events
    • Supposition of people’s motives
    • Make history fit a theory or philosophy
    • Simply report real events (although still usually assigning causes and motives)
    • Assume there is no discoverable pattern or purpose to history
  4. The first rule of reading history: to understand an event or period, read several accounts
    • Theories of history differ and thus affect how history is written
    • History may be of practical importance to the present
    • Every historical narrative must be written with a viewpoint, so to approach the truth, read multiple points of view

The Universal in History

  1. It’s not always possible to read more than one history of an event, which limits our learning the truth about what happened (e.g., the Peloponnesian War)
  2. Levels of historical reading
    • Professional historians, who must cross-check all available sources of information
    • “Irresponsible amateurs,” who read history for entertainment only
    • “Lay readers” of history, who are interested in the present and the future
  3. Why the past matters
    • People often compare or contrast their circumstances to historical situations, and model their behavior on what they perceive about past events, thus influencing the future
    • History is not as universal as poetry*, but it is the story of events that lead up to the present
  4. The second rule of reading history: read history not only to find out what happened before, but also to find out how people behave everywhere, now, and are likely to behave in the future

Questions to Ask of a Historical Book

  1. What is it the history of, and what is it not about?
  2. What part of the history is most important to the historian?
  3. Does the history have the semblance of truth, in that the historian knows what is likely to have happened, as well as what witnesses said did happen?
  4. What of it?

* NB: nor is it as universal as plausible historical fiction. – cp

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