Thursday, March 25, 2010

A History of Histories

In A History of Histories, British historian John Burrow sets himself a nearly impossible task in the title of the book alone. Impressively, he succeeds, describing the general form of history in the west in a single volume, and even more impressive is the fact that he makes it entirely readable.

Along the way, there are some excellent summaries, some explanations for why we know Livy and Tacitus so well, as well as some laments for the lists of lost histories. But when the book gets out of the Middle Ages to the point where the modern history genre starts to take shape is where it starts to get really interesting.

Perhaps the most interesting section is when Burrow starts discussing the underappreciated legal scholars of the late Renaissance and early Enlightenment who trace the history of law through archives, only to discover that everything their societies believe about how their law is a corrupted version of "Roman law" is wrong, and it's actually a collection of compromises and creations within the context of the times, as opposed to wisdom descended from the "ancients." At this point, the book is a fascinating chronicle of the intersection of society, history, law, and perception.

If the book has a major weakness, it's that the 20th Century section seems narrowly-focused and cursory. The author freely admits that he cannot go into the entirety of 20th Century histories in the single chapter he allots to it, which is fair, but it certainly leaves the reader wanting more - perhaps a second volume on the subject? Its narrow focus on "History" as an academic discipline, as opposed to the conception of "history" within society based around that discipline is disappointing, although also understandable.

A History of Histories has a fairly narrow audience, who probably know if they would be interested simply from the title. Members of that audience likely won't be disappointed.


Jonathan said...

I'm a slow reader, but *man* it took me forever to finish this book. I actually appreciated the Greek and Roman sections the most (perhaps because I'm the great-grandson of a classicist, but more likely because it hadn't yet become a slog at that point), though I agree with you on your points about the later sections of the book.

Rowan said...

Yeah, I took a break after the Greek and Roman sections too (that's when I read Promethea). I think they were probably the most readable because they were summaries of histories of archetypal fascinating events, but that made them perhaps less interesting than some of the later stuff from a historian's perspective.

Jordan said...

I will for sure have to check this out. John Burrow sounds like a great author and historian. I will for sure have to check out this book.