Why So Much Redundant and Obsolete Popular History?

Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
6,646
#11
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.

The reason that history books are so repetitive and often containvthe same errors are several in my opinion:

1. Even if there is no new information, no new archeological evidence available, an author might want to put a slightly different interpretation on the existing information. Or they might want to use more modern language or a different organization that would better appeal to current readers.

Geometry hasn't change much since Euclid, but newer math books tell the same information that is easier for modern readers to read and understand. New authors felt the could tell the same story better, and so write newer books with the same content.

2. Publishers can sell the new book for more money than republishing the old book and compete with 25 cent used copies.

3. The authors of the new books are lazy, use the available books in libraries and reference shelfs to use as source material, rather than seek out new material or the primary source materual, which is often hard to find.

For example, history books for a long time reoeated the false claim that medieval Europeans believed the world was flat, when the dominant belief of medieval Europeans was that it was a sphere, same as the ancient Greeks and Romans. Had these authors looked into actual medieval text by writers like Bed, they would have seen the flat Earth claim was false, but they clearly didn't. It was easier just to repeat what some other historian said than to look up the primary documents themselves.

4. The writer might simply be unaware of newer material that disproved older theories, having only older sources with the discredited claims. This I contibute to doing insufficient research to verify whether new material is available.

5. I also it is possible the author knew some if the information and ideas in his book had been proven wrong, but repeated them anyways because this information is what he thought his readers would expect and including it would make the book more marketable.
 
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Likes: Olleus
Nov 2018
98
Idaho
#12
3. The authors of the new books are lazy, use the available books in libraries and reference shelfs to use as source material, rather than seek out new material or the primary source materual, which is often hard to find.
“If you copy from one book, that’s plagiarism; if you copy from many books, that’s research.”

For example, history books for a long time reoeated the false claim that medieval Europeans believed the world was flat, when the dominant belief of medieval Europeans was that it was a sphere, same as the ancient Greeks and Romans. Had these authors looked into actual medieval text by writers like Bed, they would have seen the flat Earth claim was false, but they clearly didn't. It was easier just to repeat what some other historian said than to look up the primary documents themselves.
Such people should be deported to the Moon.
4. The writer might simply be unaware of newer material that disproved older theories, having only older sources with the discredited claims. This I contibute to doing insufficient research to verify whether new material is available.
People that lazy should know better than to write on the subject.

5. I also it is possible the author knew some if the information and ideas in his book had been proven wrong, but repeated them anyways because this information is what he thought his readers would expect and including it would make the book more marketable.
If there's anything I hate more than 'useful history' and axe grinding it's pandering to the mob.
 
Aug 2010
14,642
Wessex
#13
"For example, history books for a long time reoeated the false claim that medieval Europeans believed the world was flat, when the dominant belief of medieval Europeans was that it was a sphere, same as the ancient Greeks and Romans. Had these authors looked into actual medieval text by writers like Bed, they would have seen the flat Earth claim was false, but they clearly didn't. It was easier just to repeat what some other historian said than to look up the primary documents themselves."

That's actually totally untrue, the notion the people believed in the Middle Ages that world was flat is a popular misapprehension, not an idea propagated by lazy historians.

Now as always, there are good history books and mediocre ones and bad ones, one just has to be discriminating, this whole thread started off on the wrong basis, one might as well ask why there are so many bad and unoriginal novels on the market!
 
Aug 2014
943
United States of America
#15
My impression is that these "redundant" history books are typically popular history works written by people whose profession can primarily be described as writers, not historians or academics who have strayed into popular writing. These books are primarily narrative histories whose purposes do not include critical examination of sources or engagement in thornier academic debates.

The audience for such books might not know of the existence of older, similar books. They may simply see what is on the bookstore shelf. And these books do have value and worth, if only as a showcase of rhetoric and language. Sometimes, they manage to achieve inflecting an old story through the filter of a modern lens that renders the story relevant, if only to the problems and opportunities of our modern world.

One reason that these popular books can flourish is that professional historians, perhaps particularly in classics, have largely vacated the field of public engagement. One does not earn tenure writing such books, and so it is only through personal interest that an academic who can "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" will end up writing such a book for a popular audience.
 

Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
6,646
#16
"For example, history books for a long time reoeated the false claim that medieval Europeans believed the world was flat, when the dominant belief of medieval Europeans was that it was a sphere, same as the ancient Greeks and Romans. Had these authors looked into actual medieval text by writers like Bed, they would have seen the flat Earth claim was false, but they clearly didn't. It was easier just to repeat what some other historian said than to look up the primary documents themselves."

That's actually totally untrue, the notion the people believed in the Middle Ages that world was flat is a popular misapprehension, not an idea propagated by lazy historians.
I remember reading the claim medieval Europeans believed in a flat Earth in my school history books in the US as a kid. So that means real historians didn't write our grade school history books? That I can well believe.

Now as always, there are good history books and mediocre ones and bad ones, one just has to be discriminating, this whole thread started off on the wrong basis, one might as well ask why there are so many bad and unoriginal novels on the market!

The point is not why there are bad history books, but why do they keep repeating the same false stories, instead of each having their own unique mistakes,?

For example, even Needham in his Science and Civilization repeats the oft made claim that the Romans did not have the crank and crankshaft and that it was a medieval invention in Europe.

Yet that is not true. Stone reliefs in a Roman tomb at Hieropolis. Turkey show a water powered crank and crankshaft being used to run a saw, with accopamying text. And there are also remains of stone cutting water powered sawmill at a later Roman/early Byzantine site in Jerash, Jordan. Water powered marble cutting sawmill was mentioned Ausonius poem Mosella. But I still see the claim made on some internet sites.
 

VHS

Ad Honorem
Dec 2015
4,042
Brassicaland
#18
My impression is that these "redundant" history books are typically popular history works written by people whose profession can primarily be described as writers, not historians or academics who have strayed into popular writing. These books are primarily narrative histories whose purposes do not include critical examination of sources or engagement in thornier academic debates.

The audience for such books might not know of the existence of older, similar books. They may simply see what is on the bookstore shelf. And these books do have value and worth, if only as a showcase of rhetoric and language. Sometimes, they manage to achieve inflecting an old story through the filter of a modern lens that renders the story relevant, if only to the problems and opportunities of our modern world.

One reason that these popular books can flourish is that professional historians, perhaps particularly in classics, have largely vacated the field of public engagement. One does not earn tenure writing such books, and so it is only through personal interest that an academic who can "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" will end up writing such a book for a popular audience.
Even though many professional historians maintain blogs today, most of the historical writings online are by amateurs.
Then, shouldn't writings be accessible to the most?
 

caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,090
#20
I would have to add there books that contain themes not related to their subject. The awful Caligula: Divine Wrath is nothing more than sexual fantasy under the guise of history. Avoid. It really is a deviant distortion of facts.