A.J.P. Taylor, a very distinguished historian, thought that the point of studying history was that it was enjoyable. You learned no lessons from the past, nor did you discover laws of human behaviour, but you did use your faculties to the full in the complex task of discovering what happened and why – and in writing up your story in an engaging, lively way.
This is not as trivial a justification as it may seem. In a world where everything is measured in terms of its contribution to gross national product, both the writer and the reader of historical scholarship take a break from the instrumentalism that dominates our lives. Writing a work of serious history requires scholars to spend thousands of hours in archives and libraries and thousands more on the protracted activity of writing, but few of them who are not Niall Ferguson harbour the illusion that they will benefit materially. They do it because they enjoy it – and because they think they are doing something intrinsically valuable.
The reader, too, does something analogous. She or he switches off the part of the brain that demands comfort and ease and sets off on the literary equivalent of a trek in the mountains. Most historians do not write with Taylor’s verve, and the sheer bulk of many contemporary works of history makes for strenuous labour. Moreover, history is not an airport novel. It cannot be read absentmindedly, with half the brain engaged upon other tasks. You have to switch off the phone, absorb the mass of detail and engage with the argument the author is making. Reading history (or serious scholarship in any discipline) demands concentration and a high degree of self-abnegation. But as with trekking, discipline is much of the fun.
I’m writing this tongue partly in cheek, but not entirely. History – and not just potboilers about Henry VIII’s wives or who killed Kennedy – is enjoying a boom. In a moment in which we need every bit of good news we can get, I think this is a good sign. It means there are plenty of people who are prepared to work hard mentally and not accept pap.
Moreover, Taylor overstated his case. We can learn from history, even if it is a mistake to apply the past mechanically to the present. It would have been right for Britain and France to call Hitler’s bluff at Munich in 1938, but it was an error for the same two countries in 1956 to equate Nasser with European fascism and embark on the tragicomic absurdities of the Suez Crisis. Appeasement became a swear word thanks to Munich, but it is an abuse of history to draw the conclusion from Neville Chamberlain’s behaviour that countries must never seek compromise with a bully. At the same time, the parallel drawn between Nasser and Mussolini was neither foolish nor outlandish – both were indeed dictators with an inflated sense of their own importance, inordinate ambitions and countries that were woefully unprepared for the grandiose destinies their supreme leaders had planned for them. The world has other Nassers and Mussolinis today, and we are more likely to deal with them sensibly if we read and think seriously about those who resembled them in the past.
By reading history seriously, moreover, we develop an awareness of the real causes of the major questions that loom large in our societies today and consequently have a more sophisticated grasp of those questions. I am both English and a historian of politics (once upon a time, I would have said British; therein hangs a tale), and hence Brexit is something I can’t ignore – although when I think of Boris Johnson, I sometimes wish I could. Does it help to see Brexit through the lens of modern British history (and the political history of contemporary Europe)? Of course, it does. Brexit was not just about lots of mostly English people rejecting the European Union in a hissy fit – although to read some analyses of the Brexit vote, you might think that it was. It was the outcome of deeply rooted social, economic, intellectual and political causes, as well as errors and misjudgments made by political leaders in the heat of the electoral campaign. Journalists naturally tend to focus on David Cameron’s errors and Johnson’s opportunism, but ultimately the deep causes are what matter most.
Traditional political history is only one small part of the history profession today (alas, I add heretically). Social and cultural historians abound. But their work is equally relevant. Take the #MeToo movement. Does anybody seriously think this sprang into life without historical preparation? That it was the casual consequence of women objecting to sexual harassment in the media business? Obviously not. We cannot understand #MeToo in its full complexity without grasping the social forces that have led women to speak out and challenge behaviours that were once taken for granted by most men and some women. #MeToo wouldn’t have happened in 1977 or 1987, but it did happen in 2017, for reasons that can be described and traced back to much earlier than the 1970s. And historians of gender will have a field day in providing us with their interpretations of why the worm turned.
Not all history is contemporary history, of course. It is much easier to see the relevance of history when we are debating the causes of recent major political events or analyzing the significance of social movements. Yet, many historians – perhaps most – dedicate their lives to discovering more about the distant past; or, at any rate, about a past with no obvious link to the present. Is their work irrelevant?
It is certainly becoming less prevalent. Contemporary history is looming larger in historical scholarship. But this is an impoverishment – and not only because learning about the distant past is, pace Taylor, extremely intellectually enriching. It is a natural human urge to trace back where we came from and to recreate in detail how our forerunners lived their lives. The three finalists of the Cundill History Prize, whose jury I have had the honour of chairing in 2018, all meet this need with enviable professional skill. You don’t have to be a professional historian to read and appreciate them, just an inquiring, thoughtful person with a passion for trekking in the mountains of the past.
Mark Gilbert is a professor of history and international studies at the Johns Hopkins University school of advanced international studies. The winner of the 2018 Cundill History Prize, administered by McGill University, will be announced Nov. 15. cundillprize.com