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Are Big Ideas a matter of history?

January 24, 2009

Last fall, I started looking at an interesting publication/website produced by The Economist.  A blend of lifestyle and cultural coverage, it’s aptly titled Intelligent Life.  Available as a quarterly print magazine in Europe and the UK, much of the contents end up on-line at moreIntelligentLife.com.  It’s a site worth visiting.

Anyway, a short piece in the Fall ’08 issue proclaimed a new “sexiness” for history and historians.  The author Andrew Marr–himself a successful hybrid of historian and public figure–wrote that the most glamorous and influential public intellectuals are not novelists or policy wonks…

“People often ask, where are the big ideas? What has happened to the
stories through which we understand ourselves? The novelists have drawn
in their horns. Big stories rarely emerge through the blandness of
politicians’ books or the think-tanks’ social engineering manuals. Even
Barack Obama’s historical sweep is pretty bland. But turn to the
history section of Waterstone’s or Borders and there’s a vivid,
bubbling conversation going on, as interesting again as intellectual
life was in the 1960s, or Edwardian times. ” [Here’s the rest of the story]

I think Marr is on to something here. At least among people who write or read books, those who are dealing with the big questions–of religion, science, war, peace, economics, and such–are the historians.

More so than filmmakers, visual artists, philosophers, poets, or fiction writers, historians seem to capture public attention as they wrestle with “big ideas.”  To the extent that anyone cares about such things at all.  If you filter out the political screeds and celebrity dreck, a lot of the bestseller lists are histories and biographies. These are both genres that combine non-fiction and story-telling.  Fact and narrative.

In an era in which time and attention for any kind of long-form reading is scarce, it makes sense that history books can be relatively successful.  They can, at their best, manage to be both informative and entertaining.  That blend is hardly the sole province of historians or biographers, but they seem to be the least inhibited in addressing scholarly subjects with a popular touch.  It also helps that we live in interesting times, which are chock full of (real and imagined) historical parallels.

It’s hard to think of David McCullough as “sexy.”  Few people, with the possible exception of Lyndon Johnson, would use such language in reference to Doris Kearns Goodwin.  But, these popular historians (and a few of their academic counterparts) are proving that discussions of big ideas can still find a wide audience.  And, they can also find an audience with others who have an eye on history.

Presidents and Prime Ministers could do worse than consort with historians and their wares.

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