Recently, a friend asked me:

What’s the draw for the history/biography? I’ve noticed that guys older than me (who seem to be the only ones who actually read books) tend to be really into that kind of stuff, but I don’t get it. Not to say that I have no interest in history in a general sense, but I just can’t into books like that. Is it my age? Science background (as opposed to humanities/not-science)? Something else?

I replied that he seemed to read a lot of novels. What are they? They are stories. What is history? More stories, except these stories really happened.

It’s all the same to me. A story is a story.

Except that quite a bit of legit history is actually “made up”. There are certain facts, but much of history is interpretation and extrapolation from those facts. There are often different (and contradictory) perspectives, so you have to keep in mind the historians’ biases and goals when reading history. That’s what I learned from the good history teachers in high school and college.

That’s not hard to do and often makes the reading more interesting. At the moment I am reading Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, about the origins of WWI. Last Year I read Max Hastings’ version of events, Catastrophe 1914, and the year before I conquered AN Wilson’s The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, which ends with WWI. All three books express different opinions about the causes of the war (Clark’s is more radical, and indeed far more compelling, as he, unlike almost all other commentators, focuses on the essentially Balkan origins of the conflict). But they are talking about the same events, often relaying the same facts.

In any case, you have to keep the same things in mind, about the biases and points of view of the authors, when reading novels.

Biographies are certainly very interesting to me – if they are written well, though they rarely are up to my personal standard. Biographies, after all, are about people, and it’s the people (or characters) that make stories interesting (good history is also about people; I don’t buy the Marxist idea that individuals are irrelevant to a history of compelling and inevitable social forces). Sadly, I haven’t read many really good biographies.

I think it’s challenging for a biographer to walk the line between reporting and hagiography. Last year I read a pretty good biography of Robert La Follette by Nancy Unger, but it was tarnished by my developing distaste for the subject himself. Not that you have to like the subject of a biography to enjoy it, but Unger’s book was meant to be sympathetic, and because she reported so faithfully, I discovered I couldn’t get into it. I was glad to have finished it. But if someone wants to read a good biography of Robert La Follette, I can unreservedly recommend the Unger.