When rating books, the biggest difference lies between the ratings of 3.5 stars and 4 stars (perhaps second only to the difference between 4.5 and 5). It’s easy to say that a book is a solid, 3.5 star “good” read but to give it a distinction of a 4 star rating means that the author went into the territory of great writing. By granting a 4, you’re committing yourself to classify the book forevermore as a worthy investment of your time and admitting that it had an emotional impact on you – with no excessive pride or fear of judgement. (Not that I over-think my book ratings to such a degree, at all really, but back to my original point…)
I’m reading a book right now that is a solid 3.5 stars – Seven Ages of Paris, by Alistair Horne. I wanted so badly for this book to be a 4, because Paris is an enigmatic city and it has such a deep history, but there is something that is lacking, or excessive, or both, in Horne’s narrative of its story. All history is a construction. I thought, what is it about his construction that doesn’t sit well with me?
And from there, I began to think about the various ways that histories and stories are constructed around us, all the time. Here is a sampler of the variety of subjectivity we all – unassumingly – consume from all kinds of stories on a daily basis.
1. Age and Gender. This seems basic, but try to pay attention to how any writer’s age and gender influence their writing. There isn’t a basic formula, but this doesn’t mean that content is always separate from these two factors. Age can make writers come across as condescending, clueless, out of touch, wise, fresh, opinionated, or irrelevant; and note how both young and aged individuals can come through as each one of these. A young writer can be condescending because they consider themselves to be part of the new generation, and an aged writer can be condescending because they have much more experience than their younger counterparts. Gender can make writers outspoken, coy, ambitious, detail-oriented, or over-confident. And again, a woman can be as ambitious as a man can be coy, and these characteristics still legitimately come from gender. Nowhere are these things more clear than in writing. It’s an absolutely fantastic lesson in the multifaceted nature of psychology. And it’s just interesting to note as a factor affecting the content you read.
2. Social Status. For the most part, history has been written by white upper-middle class men. With gender covered in the previous point, and racial background coming up in the next, the “upper-middle class” portion of that configuration also makes a big difference. With a historically deep divide between the upper class and the lower class, and with the practical non-existence of a middle class, it’s important to realize that people have vastly different stories depending on their socioeconomic status. Think as a basic example: food supply and waste management. What point of view is your author writing from, or are there several?
3. Geocentrism. My parents had their education in Soviet Ukraine. They know about the Eastern Front of WWII. I had mine in Canada – I know almost exclusively about the Western Front, and half of my education centered around my country’s contribution specifically. We get very used to our homes and getting out into the world is difficult – physically, mentally, emotionally, intellectually. It stands out when an author considers many points of view. No author (that I have read so far) will do this perfectly; and this applies to all genres, as this is not an idea exclusive to writing history, but one embedded in human psychology. It’s important to understand this bias as it will always exist to some degree.
4. Audience and The Author’s Ego. I am convinced that when Simon Winchester wrote The Professor and The Madman he was unsure of whether his story, or his writing, was worth reading. He created sensationalism where there was no occasion for it; he brought the writing in circles to underscore any salient pieces of information. I find that the level of self-assurance that the author possesses influences writing. Sometimes they can be so self assured that they are creating great work that they forget to make it interesting. On the other hand, sometimes they put style way (way, way) over substance. And hand in hand is the factor of the audience: for example, does the author appreciate that your attention span is above grade school level? I find that Peter Watson does this well in Ideas. His history is readable, but not sensational: he realizes that if you picked up a book that is over 1000 pages long, you expect to put real work and the effort of concentration into it.
5. The Role of War. Military history is captivating. It’s business, politics, strategy, drama, theatrics, biography, culture, and psychology, all at once. But it’s limiting. We need to differentiate “history” from “military history” much more effectively than we usually do. Formal education is so often based on nothing but war and politics, and note that even strong pacifists teach nothing but war and politics (since they are so opposed to much of it). We need to teach kids more about the history of science, of our environment, of human ideas, of language and speech; while the wars that were fought influenced daily life to a high degree, the fact is that daily life still went on meanwhile.
6. The Meaning of Life. A little ambiguous of a statement, I admit. But asking someone to write a history on a topic is asking them to reveal their innermost values, if you think about it: if you had the choice to write about life in a certain area at a certain time, what would you focus on? Some people prioritize politics. Some people prioritize progress. Some prioritize outlandish personages, others still would focus on the environmental changes undergone during this time. You can focus on works of art, or cultural trends, or religious beliefs. So when reading a story, you can consider what the author is trying to get at and understand what kind of picture they are trying to paint; and once you understand this, their narrative tends to fall into place, and any blank spots present themselves for you to fill in on your own – and as you personally see fit, based on your view of the Meaning of Life.
I love bias in history. When encountered, it can feel frustrating if it does not align with your own values and your brand of storytelling; but in fact, it makes us all very active readers. My aim is to become expert at picking apart the story of the storyteller. This way, the choice in narrative becomes clear; the choice in the narrative’s omissions becomes clear as well; and thus, we understand that other perspectives exist, and a whole world of potential further learning is opened up beyond the pages of the history at hand.