The wasteland of popular history

Every author has to walk a fine line when writing a book. Fiction requires the creation of a hall of mirrors, or illusions hiding the cluttered backstage where the authors work their tricks. Many writers of non-fiction who deal in ideas and persuasion need to make sure they target the right audiences and don’t upset the very people they’re trying to prevail on. Writers of comedy are careful to make you laugh hard enough and long enough to satisfy the requirements of humour: not too much and not too little. It’s an art each time, a fine-tuning exercise, an experiment in precision and clarity.

Popular history writing requires a similar form of tightrope walking. It may be argued that the fundamental challenge involved in this type of writing is irrigating the wasteland lying between scholarship and penetrability. Of course, no scholar would ever say that scholarship is impenetrable, but this applies more to the scholarly community than to the outlying readerships. In practice, the wasteland remains a no man’s land, with scholarly books rarely falling into the hands of non-specialists. Often, these books are not only unapproachable, but they are also pretty costly. Some in fact are so expensive that only libraries and research institutes can afford them, and those few students and researchers who manage to purchase them feel like someone who’s bought a car after years of saving up.

On the other side of the wasteland lie the plains of friendly writing. This type of writing captures, most evidently, the largest numbers of readers. However, it has a genetic weakness. There is an inbuilt risk to popular history, and that is sacrificing scholarship to accessibility and readability. There are many reasons for this fragility, not least the general expectation that popular history is synthetic – and therefore washed down –, that it lies outside the verification and falsification mechanisms which scholarship, like science, must be subject to, and that simplification is necessarily a blow to knowledge, etc. Because of this, very few writers, equipped with the necessary skills and talent, take up the challenge of fertilising the wasteland lying between the two segregated spaces. The sad truth is that too few historians manage to arrest the interest of the general public for works where vulgarisation, simplification, readability and accessibility are not hallmarks of a lack of scholarship, but the result of a dexterous balancing act and a skilled tightrope walking effort, reconciling the two extremes.

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