On Reading History for Entertainment

This was going to be a discussion of the three volume history of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich1 but the introduction got out of hand, so now it is just a personal essay.  I’ll get around to the review some other time.


What’s your favourite book?  Chances are the answer is “depends” or “what kind of book?”

And it’s a fair answer.  What you want to read to be challenged, informed and/or made to think is different from what you want to read for relaxation at the end of a long day.  For the latter I often turn to the pulpy fiction of J.E.MacDonnell, who will no doubt be the subject of a future post.  Clearly, some works can be both, and maybe I ought to be spending my limited reading time on those kinds of books.  Sometimes, I do.  Occasionally the book is fiction — I recently looked at Chinaman, a novel that covers enough bases to fall into both categories — but I find that often it’s history.

Reading well-written history, popular or more specific and detailed, is one of life’s great pleasures.  The reasons are many, and probably idiosyncratic.

(1) It is not a guilty pleasure, just a pleasure.  I put the book down feeling like I’ve done something worthwhile (I’ve learned something), rather than that I should have been doing something worthwhile.  (My life is a continual battle between (a) laziness and (b) feeling like I should be doing something useful).

(2) I am not a professional historian, so I don’t get annoyed by an author’s errors or biases the way a professional probably would.  As a scientist (mostly Physics) I find it very hard to read popular science that is close to my area of expertise, because I often disagree with what is said, or how it it said, or what is deemed important.  I (sometimes make the mistake of thinking that I) know enough to be critical.  In history, well, not so much.  I don’t sit there taking issue with the author’s explanation for the sudden disappearance of the Minoan civilisation at the end of the bronze age, for example.  I just think it’s cool that they found all those frescos.

(3) I don’t read history with an agenda.  In science, I mostly read technical papers to determine quite specific information, or more broadly but still with a definite mind-set of interrogating the work looking for ideas.  I have a need to find things out so my work can progress, so much of the reading is impatient or critical.  Reading history, I feel like I can just say, “Hey, Carthage.  Don’t know much about that.  And it’s got a cool cover picture.  Let’s try that!”  The pressure is off and I can relax with the book.

(4) Not being an expert, I can read happily read popular history, which tends to be easier going than the more focussed, specialist books that I read for work.

(5) History, especially popular history, is mostly about people.  Political history is often about battles, court intrigues, heroism and stupidity, and so hits many of the button pushed by fiction.  I meet people that I can like or dislike, identify with or hate — sometimes all four at once, and in the same person.  Most of us like stories about people, and people enter into everything.  The laws of Physics or the theorems of Mathematics may not belong to history, but the story of their discovery does and is a wonderful drama full of egos and errors and tragic genius (Evariste Galois, Niels Henrik Abell) or triumph over adversity (George Boole) or just dry wit (Lagrange).  Dinosaurs might be prehistory but Owen versus Marsh is history.

Next installment: Something else.


1 John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, Knopf, New York, 1996; Byzantium: The Apogee, Penguin, 1993; Byzantium: The Decline and Fall, Penguin, 1996.


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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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