One historian proposes a regulatory authority for the discipline:

Its task would be to protect what he designates “proper historians” from incursions by “amateurs” into writing history books, and to restrain literary editors from commissioning “C-list celebs” and the writers of “chick lit” to review such historians’ work.

Of course, the proposing historian is Andrew Roberts, and who’s to say he wouldn’t be the first one fined by such an office….

More seriously, Roberts’s plaint touches, needle-like, upon the historical profession’s characteristic anxiety—can just anyone do what we do? There are more amateur historians taken more seriously than there are, say, amateur physicists. What is the professional historian’s appropriate attitude toward such amiable practitioners?

Me, I say let a thousand flowers bloom. A journalist writes a derivative and not especially insightful book about a topic I know something about: there’s an opportunity for me to write an essay or, at an extreme, a book setting the record straight (as I see it). All historical understanding is iterative, building on slight corrections to the previously written record. So the more there is, the better a picture you have, making a crabwise approach to truth. Even a mediocre book, creating a misperception of the past, at least creates a perception of the past, and one that we can work with. Why, even historical fiction is good by me; I could never understand why historians got so exercised over, say, Gore Vidal’s Lincoln. Teachable moments galore!

Incidentally, this view helps explain what you’re getting when you get hold of a professional historian—someone who’s read an awful lot of books on the subject, and has a good idea of how they push against each other, who knows what corners of the canvas remain sketchy or untouched.

Of course, this is me if you catch me in my more cheerful mode. Other times, I do think there’s a kind of Gresham’s Law operating in historical research, especially on thickly impastoed subjects like, say, Theodore Roosevelt. The profusion of bad, or at least foolish, books makes it impossible for a good book to make any meaningful impact.

And there are also pernicious books, which actively mislead by reinforcing prejudices, thereby making it that much more difficult to bend the arc of accumulated narrative back toward accuracy.

Further, inasmuch as the profession isn’t self-regulating or even -defining in that Kuhnian way, there aren’t a list of agreed-upon problems and methods. Which might, as previously noted, help keep salaries down.

Say, suddenly I’m not so sanguine anymore.

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