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Panel discusses popular history

Catherine Miller | Wednesday, December 3, 2008

There’s popular history, and then there’s unpopular history, said Thomas Noble, Chair of the Department of History and the first of three panel members to speak at Tuesday’s discussion “Academic vs. Popular History,” which aimed to differentiate between the two genres of history in today’s society.

“One of the obvious differences between popular and academic history is that popular history makes an enormous amount of money,” Noble said, as he began the event sponsored by the Department of History and Exploring History Beyond the Classroom, a one credit class designed to encourage intellectual discussion among history scholars.

Enhanced with colorful images and visuals, prominent publishers issue popular historic books, while academic books tend to lack visuals and are usually published by a university, Noble said.

“There is a difference in how the books are prepared,” he said.

Once written, an academic book is reviewed by an author’s colleagues. For a popular book, no review process is necessary, and editors work more closely with authors. Also, success of a popular historical book is measured by the number of copies sold, instead of the quality of the review necessary for success of an academic book.

“There is one piece of bad news and two pieces of good news [about this fact],” John McGreevy, O’Shaughnessy Dean of Arts and Letters, said. There is an enormous amount of bad popular history, he said.

Portions of the History Channel, sometimes referred to as the ‘Nazi Channel’ by professional historians because of the focus on hot-button topics and military history, and quickly written academic history fall under this category, he said.

Positively speaking, McGreevy said that academic historians are attempting to write for a broader audience and reach beyond scholars.

Tony Judt’s novel ‘Postwar’ exemplifies the attempt because it is self-consciously aimed at a broadly intellectual audience, he said.

Professor Linda Przybyszewski, Associate Professor of History, shared her theory of popular history and its five categories, which intrigue and garner attention from the general public.

The first sub-category, ‘Letters in the Attic,’ represents already accounted historic events that an author tries to reinvent. Novels written on important historical figures such as George Washington fall under the category of ‘Aren’t We Great.’ ‘Train Wrecks of History’ include events such as the Holocaust. The ‘That’s Weird’ category includes events such as convicted murderers, and the ‘Sex with Kings’ discusses scandals in history.

Przybyszewski said the general audience is making more of an effort to bridge the gap between popular and academic history, and professional historians need to appreciate the writing style of popular novelists in order to improve academic writing, making academic history accessible for all readers.