La Vie En Rose for 2008 April 18 (entry 0)

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[Comments] (2) Publishing and history collide:

“Oh, Rachel, this should interest you,” says one of my coworkers, pouring over a copy of The Bookseller. “In ‘history, politics and war’... ‘What is was like being a woman in the Balkans, First World War.’” He was joking of course, but I read the preview section anyway. No need to worry, there’s still a unique place in the historiography for my work. In fact, there was not one book on non-western fronts, unless you count "a concise and authoritative account of the entire course of the First World War, with analysis of decisive encounters and landmark engagements. It describes every major battle..."

The entire course of the war? Just the very book I would argue is impossible to produce. A definitive account of the First World War? EVEN if it’s just focusing on military events? (They never come out and say this outright, you have to infer it yourself from the description of battles, etc, but I think it’s a deplorable assumption in this day and age of social and culture [not to mention economic and political] history that a book on a war by default means military history. But anyway.) Let’s just consider the scale of the event. But then, these are publishers, not historians.

What other gems does The Bookseller line up for us? How about one on Marie Antoinette’s daughter? "It includes previously unpublished evidence that lays earlier conspiracy theories to rest." Previously unpublished evidence??? Who ever heard of such a thing? How exciting, really. Except that finding and interpreting primary source evidence is, um, yeah, the job of historians.

One book drew my attention, seemingly about the foundation of the Imperial War Museum and the end of the First World War. Since I spend a fair few of my days at the good ole IWM a book about its first days was intriguing to me. But – go to the Amazon link and lo and behold!: “Including archive material published here for the first time…” Why is this such a big deal? Not only that, it looks like I got the wrong impression from the Bookseller. Just another book on remembrance….

Now don’t get me wrong, remembrance is all well and good (and important)… However since Jay Winter it has been done over and over, and in one section of my thesis I remember (haha) arguing that this over-emphasis on remembrance might be just another way of our co-opting First World War experience for ourselves and devaluing the experiences of those who actually lived it.

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Posted by Sumana at Sun Apr 20 2008 19:10

Thanks for the "this is me being a grad student" category.

"Previously unpublished evidence??? Who ever heard of such a thing?.....Why is this such a big deal?"

What am I missing? If I come across some new piece of historical evidence then there must be some first time that it gets published, right? And that's cool because it's new and adds a new wrinkle to help understanding. Right?

Posted by Rachel at Sun Apr 20 2008 19:19

Yeah it's cool. It's just not a big deal because EVERY scholarly work should be based on "new" historical research. that's what makes it a)scholarly and b)historical. Unless your work is based on primary source research it's not history; it's historiography. Plus, the archives are choke full of things that have never been "published" or researched before. Richard Evans shoots down David Irving in Lying about Hitler for hyping his brand-new-never-published-before research (never mind the other problems with his book such as factual misrepresentation!). If your historical work doesn't include this kind of research, you're not doing your job as a historian. Sumana, I highly recommend you read this book. It's fascinating and will probably answer a lot of your questions about the job of a historian (I read it in my historiography course).

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