Hello book bees! This discussion post is a little different, as it’ll be a brief little guide to how to more consciously engage with historical nonfiction. As an archaeologist with a background in history and historiography, I find it important to discuss critical engagement with modern texts regarding historical events.
When reading historical nonfiction it’s important to understand that there are different kinds of history books. There are textbooks, which have incredibly condensed information (depending on the topic) in order to give a broad overview of a chronology of events. There are also “popular history” books, generally written as an entertaining and/or absorbing account of events. These books are usually written without a lot of technical jargon in order to widen the potential audience. There are also theory books, which engage in critical historical thought about persons and events. These books tend to deconstruct previous misconceptions of history, or present a new perspective often overlooked.
So, to help sort out the bad books from the good, here are some tips and tricks for picking what to read and what to pass on:
- Look up the author. Make sure they’re somebody who knows how to research and has a firm grasp of the subject at hand.
- Check what sources the book cites. If the book claims to be well informed or accurate and has a shockingly short list of sources, then not enough research has been done. Likewise, if you notice sources that are incredibly outdated or inaccurate, you know the book will have similarly incorrect information.
- If you can easily find it, determine what the overall thesis of the book is. Perhaps the thesis doesn’t interest you after all, or it’s something you disagree with. Alternatively, perhaps the thesis is one that’s incredibly interesting to you and you’ll find yourself seeking out other books along the same lines.
- See if the book has reviews from credible sources. Academic journals, book bloggers you find reliable, and Goodreads (though a lot of nonfiction books lack reviews there) are always places to check.
To my fellow history nerd book bees out there, what do you take into account when picking up a nonfiction book?
2 replies on “So you want to start reading historical nonfiction…”
This is a really interesting post. I love historical non-fiction, but have been caught out before by a book that was presented in a really professional-looking way, only to discover that it was actually quite flimsy and poorly written. When I looked into the author a bit more it became clear they had no real credentials as a historian or academic, but by then it was a wasted £16.99!
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