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Sunday
Nov112012

Coming Soon ~ On Reading & Writing History: A Blog

Welcome to the soon-to-be home of "On Reading & Writing History."

For the most part, this blog won't feature further discussion of my own books ~ rather, I'll be writing about the work of other narrative historians, especially those who have enlightened and inspired me. I'll also be writing about writing itself: as an instructor of narrative nonfiction literature and writing at George Mason University, I'm surrounded by students and colleagues who never let this kind of discussion go dry, and I can only hope to match their level of passion and curiosity. Put simply: I'll be happy if I can help someone find something new to read, or to re-read something in a new way.

Narrative history ~ along with the narrative historian ~ holds a unique place in the world of literature. Not fiction, certainly; not journalism, exactly; not scholarly inquiry, entirely; but whatever it is, it rests on an often-contested belief that not only do we use story to organize and make sense of our own lives, we also use story to make sense of our past. Or, better said, pasts, because the central fallacy of history-as-story is that it reduces history to a story, a claim that's all too accurate when one considers the considerable forces that push and bend history into certain shapes that all but close off further inquiry. The best writers of history, of course, do anything but. The best writers of history seek only to expand the discussion, to use story as a way of suggesting ever greater depths beyond the moment, or topic, at hand.

There is no single past, of course. There are the infinite pasts that belong to the participants, each one with an entirely subjective, personal experience of the times and events through which they move and in which they act. And there are the infinite pasts that belong to us, their descendents, each of us desirous of a story that helps us not only to know what happened, not only to understand what happened, but also to fit what happened into our own sense of time's progress.

Writers of narrative history understand that they both participate in and undermine this process. They can't help but find audiences in those readers whose ideological, stylistic, and subject-matter preferences approach their own; but they are also aware of their responsibility to their own research and, yes, intuition, their responsibility never to serve up exactly what the reader expects. They come from many fields and draw on many experiences, and the particular stew they concoct--made of careful thought, eye-straining research and full-throated storytelling--comes in so many flavors and varieties that it is impossible to generalize about their work.

So, rather than generalize, I'll pick one work of narrative history for each entry and dive into my own reasons for finding it worthwhile. I'll post the entries here, on Goodreads, and on Facebook and Twitter. And if you're reading and wish to comment, I hope you'll do so. Some might have us believe that books are dying, and that readers are an endangered species. I couldn't disagree more. Each day I see new and substantial evidence to the contrary. If my small blog is another small piece of that evidence, so much the better.

Stay tuned ~ my first post will appear soon!