Why So Much Redundant and Obsolete Popular History?

Nov 2018
98
Idaho
#1
Ever since I was in middle school I have been reading history books - Penguin World Histories, numerous books on the archaic and classical Hellenistic world, the Roman empire, etc. As time went on I started to notice that most of these books contained no new information. Everything I would find in one History of Rome would be repeated in another book, so that the existence of both is something of a mystery. As I began to read longer and more academic sources I discovered that not only were most of these books totally redundant but they were also riddled with errors and dubious interpretations - the same ones - which had been long disputed or even outright refuted by later scholarship, scholarship which predates the writing of the books themselves. Not only were these books basically plagiarism of one another but they also relied on a number of myths, fallacies and anachronisms that a professional historian ought to know better than to repeat.

More recently I have had a great deal of pleasure reading works such as The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare, A Critical History of Early Rome: From Prehistory to the First Punic War by Gary Forsyth, A Short History of Roman Law by Olga Tellegen-Couperus and Augustus: The Biography by Jochen Bleicken. All of these books employ tremendous research in a broad range of fields, actively engage controversies, acknowledge the paucity of evidence, and evince a critical approach to the classical sources we have. Yet most popular histories of Rome, printed and reprinted year-after-year, are something Mommsen could have written in 1890. They do not discard the refuted, they do not make distinctions, they do not incorporate new evidence. They're just a rehash - essentially plagiarism - of obsolete works. Why do people even write these? There is no new information, it's often just plain wrong, and most of these writers are not especially talented wordsmiths. I suppose the reason is 'because people buy them', but aside from the market for such repetitive drivel what drives so-called historians to write an entire book about Rome and do no research in the process? In your typical popular text book you get stock cliches about Greek and Roman culture, warfare, the motives to events and so forth which show absolutely zero interest in the vast literature surrounding these, they don't even acknowledge that such literature exists, much less come to grips with it.
 
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Ayrton

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
3,053
Bendigo
#2
I guess there is a simple reality regards people, generally. Some people make it happen, some people watch it happen, and done people ask: ‘What happened?’ Those who make it happen are about 3% of the population (pure guesstimate). It is among this 3% of those who are historians you find will find your sharp eyed researcher-thinker-wordsmiths, who are often ridiciculed by the sheep (watchers and ‘what happeners’) amongst the historians (97% of them, approximately). But those excellent historians are to found. Thank goodness! IMO teaching history and writing the occasional book is a nice, comfortable existence. That’s, I think, why you get so many ordinarily researched and poorly written books.
 
Nov 2018
98
Idaho
#3
But those excellent historians are to found. Thank goodness!
Sure, but what's weird to me is how people keep writing and buying completely reptitive histories. As in, instead of spending $40 on a new hardcover History of Rome you could spend 25 cents at a garage sale to get a Penguin book from 40 years ago that would contain just as much information and of equal veracity. I guess the people reading this history for the first time wouldn't know it, but the people writing it should know that what they're writing has no apparent utility to the expansion of human knowledge. It's essentially the same old book, only about 200x more expensive.

At this point I more or less automatically ignore anything that's written for a popular audience, because in my experience it's always the same bullet list of events that I could literally write myself.
 

Ayrton

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
3,053
Bendigo
#4
Sure, but what's weird to me is how people keep writing and buying completely reptitive histories. As in, instead of spending $40 on a new hardcover History of Rome you could spend 25 cents at a garage sale to get a Penguin book from 40 years ago that would contain just as much information and of equal veracity. I guess the people reading this history for the first time wouldn't know it, but the people writing it should know that what they're writing has no apparent utility to the expansion of human knowledge. It's essentially the same old book, only about 200x more expensive.

At this point I more or less automatically ignore anything that's written for a popular audience, because in my experience it's always the same bullet list of events that I could literally write myself.
I admit to buying ordinary books on subjects I am interested in, hoping to find something a little new, and really bored with all the repetition but gritting my teeth and persevering ‘just in case’. Yet, very good writers, stylists, often bring a fresh view to even the oldest news. And, let’s face it, new revelations or new facts are not always so easy to come by. A good writer/historian, can trawl old news and pick out fascinating info that everyone has seen but not really thought too thoroughly about, thus revealing new insights. But all those ordinary books... I guess I read books that seem to just go over old territory, hoping that, once in awhile, even the worst, laziest writer might mention something I had never seen or considered before.
 
Nov 2010
6,999
Cornwall
#5
Regarding medieval history (particularly wrt Spain), sources were often remote in time (200 years later or more), extremely biased or just telling stories based on no concept of numbers in particular. These were often picked up and over the years repeated as gospel. In the early 20th century some serious histotical investigators started looking deeper, researching where no one had actually been before.

Nowadays there is another wave, having dived into arabic archives as well as latin, brand new archeology and new thinking. Re-analysing every source available and finding simple errors either in deciphering or in translation, which had been quoted as truth through the centuries.

History is a living, changing world as more and more knowledge is brought into play and some old traditional sources can be seen to verge on the ridiculous. I think you need to dive deep into a subject to appreciate this, as many posters do here
 
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Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
3,060
Dispargum
#7
Maybe you're not interested in what modern historians have to say. JFC Fuller, b. 1878, was very much a Victorian and as such had no interest in Alexander the Great's sex life. More recent biographies all feel the need to explore whether or not Alexander was gay. Another recent theory is that Alexander may have suffered from PTSD in his final years. This theory is based apparently only on a perception that he was drinking more heavily. Analysis of Alexander's strategies and tactics hasn't changed that much in the last 100 years (or possibly longer). If you don't care about Alexander's sex life or for wishy-washy psychiatry based on very little evidence, then you might not notice much difference between the old and new biographies. The same could probably be said for any other historical subject.
 
Nov 2018
98
Idaho
#8
no interest in Alexander the Great's sex life. More recent biographies all feel the need to explore whether or not Alexander was gay. Another recent theory is that Alexander may have suffered from PTSD in his final years.
I have no interest in it because it's baseless speculation based on vague and contradictory snippets of data. Trying to discover the internal mental workings of ancient people is asinine, and applying the pseudoscientific medical jargon of the psychiatric hucksters is demented nonsense. I put it in the same category as people who explain Hitlerism by his lack of a testicle. If I had any respect for academia I should say they ought to be expelled, but honestly that mad house is precisely where they belong. Sensationalist clap-trap and MuhCurrentIssues.

In many areas, unless new information comes to light, people should just shut up and admit the absolute lack of meaningful data. But since these career scribblers and superfluous babblers would not be able to feed themselves without their torrents of inchoate masturbatory fiction I am not surprised they do not. They might have to get a real job at McDonalds!
 

VHS

Ad Honorem
Dec 2015
4,042
Brassicaland
#9
Ever since I was in middle school I have been reading history books - Penguin World Histories, numerous books on the archaic and classical Hellenistic world, the Roman empire, etc. As time went on I started to notice that most of these books contained no new information. Everything I would find in one History of Rome would be repeated in another book, so that the existence of both is something of a mystery. As I began to read longer and more academic sources I discovered that not only were most of these books totally redundant but they were also riddled with errors and dubious interpretations - the same ones - which had been long disputed or even outright refuted by later scholarship, scholarship which predates the writing of the books themselves. Not only were these books basically plagiarism of one another but they also relied on a number of myths, fallacies and anachronisms that a professional historian ought to know better than to repeat.

More recently I have had a great deal of pleasure reading works such as The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare, A Critical History of Early Rome: From Prehistory to the First Punic War by Gary Forsyth, A Short History of Roman Law by Olga Tellegen-Couperus and Augustus: The Biography by Jochen Bleicken. All of these books employ tremendous research in a broad range of fields, actively engage controversies, acknowledge the paucity of evidence, and evince a critical approach to the classical sources we have. Yet most popular histories of Rome, printed and reprinted year-after-year, are something Mommsen could have written in 1890. They do not discard the refuted, they do not make distinctions, they do not incorporate new evidence. They're just a rehash - essentially plagiarism - of obsolete works. Why do people even write these? There is no new information, it's often just plain wrong, and most of these writers are not especially talented wordsmiths. I suppose the reason is 'because people buy them', but aside from the market for such repetitive drivel what drives so-called historians to write an entire book about Rome and do no research in the process? In your typical popular text book you get stock cliches about Greek and Roman culture, warfare, the motives to events and so forth which show absolutely zero interest in the vast literature surrounding these, they don't even acknowledge that such literature exists, much less come to grips with it.
Penguin is one of the reputable publisher; its books should be of relative sound quality.
Facts are usually similar; we should look for different interpretations; history without interpretations is impossible.
 
Nov 2018
98
Idaho
#10
Penguin is one of the reputable publisher; its books should be of relative sound quality.
A friend of mine was a consultant on the The Penguin World History, and it is indeed excellent though outdated. But I mentioned it precisely because it makes most other History of Rome books useless, in that it contains everything you will get from these repetitive publishing exercises.
Facts are usually similar; we should look for different interpretations; history without interpretations is impossible.
Interpretation of facts also requires a method and a theory about how events proceed (whether physical or social, usually both). However, there are so few facts to be found about archaic history and so few useful interpreters that the majority of them are identical, or absurd. The recent "Caesar committed suicide!" book being an excellent example of someone making a mountain out of a molehill of evidence while showing little understanding of Caesar's plans and actions in 44 BC. It is both absurd and baseless. And I don't mean Caesar's secret motives (which he speaks to, but I do not) but simply the objective flow of events and data completely contradicts his core thesis and he makes no attempt to parry this hammer blow against his house of cards. If, in fact, Caesar intended to die that day or soon there is no recorded reason to believe he did. That is lost to history, unless someone finds a secret letter to Octavian or Brutus, etc.