Saturday, August 20, 2005

On the Merit of Amateur Historians

History News Network has an interesting article by David Greenberg on different types of writing about history.

I must add, however, that in my case narrative works by amateurs have often provided me with stimulating starting points upon which I developed further interests that I may not have otherwise discovered in works by professionals. Thus Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror fueled my interest in the history of Hundred Years' War in ways that Jonathan Sumption's Trial by Battle or Trial by Fire would not have done had I read his work first instead of Tuchman's. Although now that I have had a considerable degree of familiarity with the subject, I would certainly find Sumption's works much more illuminating at my level compared to Tuchman's.

And Peter Irons's A People's History of the Supreme Court definitely beats any introductory constitutional law textbook out there merely by being a work that more or less tells as much as an introductory textbook does on the subject and that is yet at the same time not boring.

And what could be a better book to make someone fall in love with philosophy than Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy? If I were to introduce Spinoza to someone and hoping that she will find an interest in his philosophical works, it would not be Ethics or Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, nor would it be the works of Nadler, Garrett, or Rocca that I would first make her read; but rather, it would be the 50-page introductory chapter on Spinoza in The Story of Philosophy. Not only that Durant does such an excellent job telling the philosopher's life story in such a limited space, he also explains Spinoza's philosophical system to an unfamiliar audience in such a way that I feel no expert on Spinoza would have been able to do. (Nadler does a fairly good job of explaining Spinoza's basic philosophical system in his Spinoza: A Life, yet it is some 400 pages long and full of rich background details which an uninitiated reader looking only for the most basic and short introduction would probably not appreciate.)

So yes, I may now find the works of Tuchman, Irons, or Durant to be wanting if I re-read them again. But they were nonetheless important stepping stones for me in reaching higher ground. Fxs

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