Burned by Pop History

As Archer's Ray would say, "Goddammit!" I read Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How The World Became Modern a few weeks ago. It won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. It's about the Roman poet Lucretius who penned a long poem about scientific materialism, that said we are all made of atoms, that evolution is real, that the pursuit of life is pleasure with little pain, and that sex is great. It's a great poem if you don't know it, it's called On the Nature of Things, check it out, blah, blah, blah. Anyway, Greenblatt's books is about it's rediscovery in the 1400s. I liked the book very much, but reading the reviews afterwards, surprise, it's not very accurate. Greenblatt gets a lot of Christian and medieval history wrong, impugning a thousand years of Christianity as a dark ages of learning and scholarship, and then saying Lucretius' poem kickstarted the Renaissance and the modern world, when that isn't the case.

Similarly, I bought Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday years ago, and, now, luckily, never read it. Because I'm currently reading another book on China, done by two scholars, I checked their bibliography—no mention of the book. I nervously went online, and surprise, surprise, the book was blasted by scholars as being a demonization of the man, with conclusion already reached, a very biased hit piece, no matter how Mao deserved it, and just wrong history. Some scholars even got together to write a book on the book, correcting it.

My thinking, usually, hopefully, pop history is good and accurate. It has to be, otherwise what's the point? University histories, academic histories are hard to get at and not in the general public. I don't know why that's so if the true information is not available to people, and what is the point of history if it's not read by everyone so that we can all learn from it? So instead of academic histories, we get pop, which is great, because they have a dramatic narrative and are easy and exciting to read. But why are some inaccurate? Why can't we get the scholarship of academic histories and the verve of pop history in one package? I don't want to be skeptical of every work of history that I read from now on. And also, when reviewing the latest book, newspapers and media outlets—please assign experts to them. Otherwise you're failing your jobs. Without having read Mao: The Unknown Story, I'm going to give it away and look for a better biography. And just be more wary from now on, because, apparently, I have to be.