Analytical v. Narrative History

The other day one of my readers inquired as to whether I “only acquire books from university presses.”  I’ve addressed this issue in the past, but it is worth spending a few minutes revisiting.  It’s a fair question given that the overwhelming majority of Civil War titles that I list in these posts are from university presses.  By extension, the same holds true for my Civil War library as a whole.  That fact alone, however, won’t tell you much about my reading habits.  I am going to tread lightly here given that some of us can get pretty defensive when it comes to our reading preferences and interests.  While I love a good history narrative my primary interests in the area of Civil War studies are books that are analytically driven.  Yes, I want it to be readable, but I also want to be engaged and challenged by a good argument.  I prefer books that are heavy on theory and conceptual analysis and light on traditional narrative.

I gravitate toward historians who are going to add something significant to my understanding of the period or challenge what I already believe.  In the area of military history I prefer a Glenn David Brasher or George Rable over a Stephen Sears.  If I am going to read a biography I prefer something along the lines of Keith Dickson’s new book about Douglas Southall Freeman.  Yes, most of these folks have gone through graduate programs in history and tend to teach in a college or university.  No, you don’t necessarily have to have proceed in such a fashion, but for those who do the result is an understanding of a subject and possession of a skill that is unlikely to occur elsewhere.  This is not meant as a slight to anyone in particular or to anyone’s preferences.  I happen to love the work of Sears.  In the end, it comes down to what one is hoping to learn from the inquiry itself.  I’ve been reading Civil War studies long enough to have a pretty good grasp of the historiography and my interests tend to revolve around certain questions that I find intriguing and that have shaped the field over time.  When something new comes out I can evaluate it based on the quality of the interpretation as well as where it fits into the broader field.  Quite often a well argued book shows me something important beyond the Civil War period and even beyond the study of history itself.

It should come as no surprise that I learn about new books through journals such as Civil War History, The Journal of the Civil War Era and Journal of Southern History, all of which focus heavily on academic titles.  Having maintained a successful blog for so long has also put me in close contact with a number of academic presses.  Many of them have been kind enough to send me new titles for review on the blog and elsewhere.

My reading is quite different outside of the area of Civil War history.  I favor books that are much more narrative driven.  For example, I recently read and enjoyed Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President.  The book didn’t do much to challenge my understanding of any major historical problems, but it did excite my imagination and that is exactly why I read it.  I love writers who can hold my attention and transport me to far away places.

Ultimately, what matters is that we enjoy and grow based on what we read.  Hope that answers the question.

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6 comments… add one

  • Pat Young Apr 25, 2012

    Kevin, you already know the narrative.

    In my line of work, where folks in my field know tons about statistics, policy analysis, and jurisprudence, the public relations folks always tell us “the general public wants to hear good stories”.

    In law and history, I like the analytic work too, but if I’m reading about biology, I like a good old scientific detective story a lot better than a text.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 25, 2012

      Good point, but I am talking about the study of history as opposed to how it might be presented in situations such as the one you describe.

  • Ben Railton Apr 25, 2012

    Hi Kevin,

    Interesting stuff as always! The real trick for me, and it’s what I’m trying for in both of my current book projects (and is something you’ve written about in lots of other contexts), is to find that public scholarship balance–to bring the analytical complexity and work that a scholar can, but write in a way that’s compelling to non-academic audiences. Still working on it!

    Thanks,
    Ben

    • Kevin Levin Apr 25, 2012

      Still working on it!

      Same here. :-)

      • Wallace Hettle Sep 11, 2012

        I love narrative history, but I don’t want the same old story again and again. There are historians who do both narrative and analysis at the same time: think Eric Foner on Reconstruction, James McPherson on the war years, David Donald on Lincoln, William Freehling’s South vs. the South and number of good, specialized studies.

        And Douglass Southall Freedman? For his place and time, he is much better than one might think–he framed many debates that still matters. And he wasn’t even a perfesser!

        • Kevin Levin Sep 11, 2012

          I couldn’t agree more, especially re: Freeman.

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