Thursday, June 24, 2004

Schama's favourite history before he had a TV series to plug

I came across this list of Simon Schama's Top 10 popular history books. It's 2-3 years old (just after Rembrandt's Eyes, no mention of History of Britain), and in the light of his more recent pronouncements, interesting both for what it includes and what it doesn't. Gibbon is there, 'for the jokes and the fantastic footnotes' (yep, footnotes) and so is Carlyle, though only at no. 8 - but where's Macaulay? And the historian at the top spot, Richard Cobb, didn't get much of a look in when Schama was telling us who we should emulate in our history writing, did he? Also here is Braudel's The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World and one of my all-time favourites, Carlo Ginzberg's Cheese and the Worms (that book turned me on to early modern history as a first-year undergrad).

This list, in fact, sums up my bemusement at Schama's statements this year, which seemed to me to contradict his own history as a wide-ranging historian ready to experiment with subject and form: he appeared to want us to narrow our options (in both respects). It didn't make too much sense unless you saw it as a fairly cynical exercise in plugging his new TV series (which I didn't find very interesting, despite the talents of the actors recruited to read the extracts; I wonder if it would have worked better on the radio), or a kind of defensive reaction to the criticisms of the History of Britain series for being old-fashioned.

This older list tells a rather different story, one in which diversity, the old and the new, different kinds of history (including the highly scholarly, if not the quantitative brand) and 'story' telling, are celebrated. Perhaps Simon ought to go back and read it himself.

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