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Historical Scholarship--Let's Call The Whole Thing Off

Illustration for article titled Historical Scholarship--Lets Call The Whole Thing Off

Well, now I'm depressed. Whereas you normal people would be bummed out for bummed-out reasons, such as a bad day at work or your child is suddenly a Republican, I get the sadz over books I want to read not being good. In nonfiction, this translates to them not being accurate. I wrote about this here a few months ago about Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve, the story of Lucretius' On The Nature Of Things. While summarizing Lucretius correctly, Greenblatt got medieval history wrong. Because I don't read by subject—specialized, in other words—I didn't notice and and only found out later.


Well, it's kind of happened again. I checked out UC Davis econ professor's Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms, a history of the Industrial Revolution to now. I did this solely because I have copies of old New York Review of Books issues, and I decided to go through one, reading the books before I read the reviews. (Thus obviating the purpose of the magazine itself; mine is not an efficient system.) So I start the book and some of the claims seem a little outlandish. One of them is that the prosperity brought by the Industrial Revolution was Darwinian—that the rich people had more babies than the poor people and because growth didn't grow, with everyone before 1800 living in Malthusian conditions, all that surplus population had to go down the jobs ladder, working beneath their station but spreading out in more careers than the rich would normally do. This eventually led to productive qualities like patience and hard work being spread more widely and leading to national prosperity. The reason why some countries became wealthy and others like in Asia and elsewhere didn't was because those qualities of hard work didn't spread as much as they did in Europe.

Or at least I think that's the argument from the many reviews I've skimmed online. If that's the argument—a little controversial, no? We're kind of back in Nicholas Wade's A Troublesome Inheritance territory, which says that explanations of things—-culture, economics—are genetic. If that is indeed the argument Clark is making, I wish a good biologist had reviewed his economics book.


But the many reviews say that his larger thesis—whatever that is; the biology is only a part of it—is provocative. But I don't want history that is provocative. I want history that is true. I'm pretty naive about historiography. I don't know how the historical sausage is made, but, above all, I want whatever is published in the bounds of a book to be true and how things actually were in previous times. I don't want someone's argument about how they were and why. Because how do I know that someone is getting it right? Then another book on the same time period and events comes along with a different argument. Then another. So history becomes completely useless, because it is something only for the people who do it, to do now, a party game, that they can put their own egos in, instead of relating, in clear language, what happened and why to the rest of us.

There may be many explanations for what happened and why, and the evidence can be read on many levels, but surely history isn't that complicated. There can't be a thousand contradictory reasons for why something happened. Historical topics and biographies that number in the thousands—like books on Abraham Lincoln or Nazi Germany—can exist and can uncover more truths. But, for the love of God, don't give me new explanations, because then I don't know what to believe. Then the Ivory Tower should really stay specialist and separated from the lay reader, who can't judge this thing himself and depends on the writers to inform him. But if they keep proposing new explanations then the study of history is done not for any attempt to understand the past, but something to keep these writers employed and amused.

I don't want my history to be the above. Though I will admit it would be great in wooing Minnie Driver. Maybe that tips the scales in its favor.


Important Update 1: Man, Mexico lost brutally. Sorry, Mexico.

Important Update 2: What the hell—I'll finish the book. There is a long history of intellectuals and students (I'm neither) having bull sessions to vociferously debate the latest theories and intellectual arguments. I'll just be a little more skeptical of Clark's claims, and glean whatever information I can find. Anyway, I don't mean to lump it in with Wade's book, which was more harshly reviewed. Clark's has a whole list of good blurbs from economists at the back of the book and the reviews I've skimmed give it qualified praise.

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