Some Surprising Recommendations
NEWS FROM NON-BORING HOUSE Recommendations I Would Rather Not Give. Announcing a NEW feature at NBH. PLUS: Exclusive for Nonnies: One of my favorite historical movies.
How Long is This Post? 2,100 words. About 10 min read.
A warm welcome to all my readers, old and new. Grab a cup of tea or coffee, take a seat, and settle in for News From Non-Boring House, my regular feature about what’s happening at Non-Boring House NOW. Which brings me to . . .
Laing, Why Don’t You Write Directly About Current Events?
That question is about the elephant in the room, isn’t it?
So I’ll say it for you.
Why am I not writing about what’s happening in Ukraine? Many reasons. Here’s a typically roundabout historian answer. Yes, it’s necessary. No, it’s not nearly as long as I could have written.
People often ask historians to tell us where we’re going. Not everyone who answers that call and pulls out a crystal ball, whatever they may tell you, is a trained historian, apprenticed to other historians in PhD programs while writing a book-length dissertation, and marinated in books and archives.
And those who are historians, and write about current events, are often not widely enough read to put context around the present, much less to predict the future, and proceed on the assumption that their predictions are correct.
Maybe they will turn out to be right, in which case they will be hailed as prophets, and well done, them. Maybe they’re wrong, and they will either frighten or underprepare audiences who depend too heavily on them for a worldview.
I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: I am not interested in leading a cult of followers, and it’s absolutely not the goal of NBH, which is why I risk your support to tell you things you don’t want to hear, and regularly undermine my own authority.
My goal is to use whatever skills and knowledge I have acquired to make my readers aware that there’s far more history out there than they got at school or even in college, whole areas of knowledge that we never knew we never knew (to borrow a phrase from Disney’s Pocahontas). To reassure you that it’s utterly impossible to know any but a small bit of it, even for experts, and that confessing the limits of one’s knowledge is an important part of being an expert in anything.
My limits, in brief:
I’m an early Americanist, with a PhD in early American history to 1820 (although I kind of lose interest when the British leave, as I always joked to my students). My PhD minor was in modern Britain, and I am a Brit, but my knowledge is rusty, since I haven’t taught that in years. I read a fair bit in 19th and 20th century US history. I started out doing British political history, but discovered I was born to be a social and cultural historian, so my academic work is mostly on popular religious culture, meaning how people went to church and thought about religion. And on, and on, boringly.
What I do here at NBH is defer to experts, by which I mean—with rare exceptions— traditionally-trained academic historians, writing about the subjects on which they know best. That’s why I write about one book at a time in Annette Tells Tales, the collection of essays I write in which the info I give you is more reliable than, say, in Annette on the Road, where I do my best to write on the fly. My choice of books, my choice of subjects? They reflect my always-evolving interests, my biases, as would be true of any historian, or any history professor in a classroom.
And it’s always my take, which is why I urge specialists (again, only trained historians) to let me know if I blow it. If the author of an Annette Tells Tales piece is alive to ask, I send them what I have written. So far, they have been pleased, but that’s not going to last, because I will get something wrong. Guaranteed. I am human.
The most important thing isn’t the subjects I introduce to you. It’s that I’m modeling , imperfectly, how historians—real historians, not pretendy ones— think. A lot of hesitancy. A lot of reluctance to give short answers or glib statements. An awe in the face of how hard it is to be sure of anything. Oh, and do know that I made my name as a historian (I’m a one-hit wonder), with an article on 18th century African-American religion that flat out said that there are limits to what we can know. Like many historians, I think historians should wait until everyone’s dead and the documents have become available before we lift a pen, anyway: Everything else is current events, and the territory of journalists.
And that’s why I’m not writing about Ukraine. And why I do what I do here.
Oh, and here’s one sterling bit of advice for today from Dr, Joan Donovan, a highly-regarded media scholar (she’s at Harvard, but that’s not always a guarantee):
And on a completely unrelated note, I’m scheduled to give my Could You Be A World War II Kid? talk to kids and teens at a school in California this afternoon. Funny how that suddenly seems different from how I thought of it yesterday. Always remember, folks: The past doesn’t change, but history does. If you didn’t know why before, here we are.
So here’s my recommendation about now: Keep calm, and carry on. And there’s more where that came from, only I wrote it as a novel about young time travelers to WWII England (Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When), which I also recommend to you. Along with this next book. Even though they’re both aimed at young readers. Look, if you ever saw Wit the play (or movie with Emma Thompson), remember that last scene, when her old professor offers to read metaphysical poetry to her, and then changes her mind, and reads a picture book instead. That’s sometimes what we need. On that note . . .
Don't Blink! A Book Recommendation from Annette
Okay, I'll admit it: I hate giving reading recommendations. I would much rather direct you to a professional librarian.
Why? Because there are millions of books, and I have only read a few. Because I mostly read academic history that real people (aka non-historians) wouldn’t touch with a twenty foot pole.
Anyway, I don’t know what you might enjoy reading, folks! Everyone’s different!
So when Elizabeth Held, author of What To Read If asked me to recommend a history book, as author of Non-Boring History AND as a historian, I was terrified. Suppose people didn’t like what I chose? Suppose they found it, well, boring? 😱
But I had to come up with something. So I did. It’s a picture book that even preschoolers can enjoy. As I explained at What to Read If:
Any academic history book I would suggest as non-boring, even one on the history of sex, will still find a way to bore all but the most obsessive reader, and I don’t want to kill my credibility by recommending the wrong book to you.
But EVERYONE (yes, including this PhDed historian) loves the picture book A Street Through Time, by historian Anne Millard (who weirdly no longer gets a byline since she died) and illustrator Steve Noon. Each scrumptiously-detailed two-page spread shows a moment in the life of the same European street from 10, 000 BC to the present, and it‘s a joyous crash course in everything we most need to understand about history: What change over time actually means, how nothing is inevitable, and the often surprising connections between past and present, all presented in a fun package with a sly sense of humor.
And here’s A Street Through Time. I don’t do affiliate links, so buy from your favorite bookseller. Or borrow from a library. Honestly, this is one you will want to own, and share with the whole family:
Meanwhile. I have begun my revenge on Elizabeth at What to Read If , challenging her to list her favorite history-related books, with an eye on their value as entertainment, and stimulating interest in the past. I’m betting she’s worried about the accuracy thing, but honestly? If it gets people interested, that’s a start. I'll let you know when Elizabeth reports back.
Introducing History & Memory! A New Section at Non-Boring History
A LOT of people think history is passed down from our forefathers on gold tablets, and are pretty stunned when historians show them ghastly old textbooks we would never read today, and they realize . . . No. That’s not how this works.
History is the study of change over time. And how people “remember” the past has itself changed over time. So, bear with me. History and Memory is specifically about how the public, people who aren't professional historians, have changed how they think about the past. One example I’ve already written about? The continuing influence of the Daughters of the Confederacy on the popular memory of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and, above all, slavery.
That’s why I’ve started a new section on History & Memory at Non-Boring History.
Laing, what is this section thing of which you speak? I’m confused.
I understand. Look, best thing is to show you. Take a look at the Non-Boring History home page. Look at the top. Under the Non-Boring History title, there’s a bar with subtitles: Tales, Annette Aloud, Road, etc. Click on any of them, and they take you to a list of the different kinds of posts I write. All of these posts (and more!) are also listed in the main body of the page, under Archive. Sections are just a handy way for you to explore my posts.
As a paid subscriber, you get all these posts, unless you specifically opt out of a section, which you can do at a click of a button in your Substack account (top right of your screen).
And now History & Memory is among the sections at Non-Boring History! I’ve already moved some posts into this section.
This weekend, I will have an exclusive NONNIES (PAID SUBSCRIBERS ONLY) post on an English historian who disliked Scots, and why what he had to say will knock your socks off, no matter if you’re Scottish, not Scottish, or simply not interested in Scotland. Hint: It’s not really just about Scotland.
Subscribe now on the founding, annual, or monthly paid plans, and you get a free 7 day trial!
The Sample: Tinder for Newsletters
In Non-Boring History, I try to match you to interests in history, most of which you never knew you had. That’s like the goal of the folks at The Sample: They help you find newsletters you enjoy.
I subscribe to The Sample, use it myself to find newsletters I like, and recommend it. It’s free.
I don’t get paid for this, or any recommendation. But do know this, in the interests of transparency: If you sign up, The Sample shows NBH to more of its subscribers, and that supports my mission. Everyone wins.
The Fork in Today’s Road
Here’s the moment when I wish my free readers a very happy weekend, and invite the Nonnies to stick around for an exclusive extra, a recommendation of one of my favorite movies set in the past.
Free reader? Subscribe, and you get instant access to the remainder of this newsletter, to Sunday’s post, and to the entire NBH collection of posts when you become a Nonnie. Hit the subscribe button below, and sign up for an annual, monthly, or even Founding paid plan. You can even opt for a 7 day trial first.