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This article is taken from PN Review 211, Volume 39 Number 5, May - June 2013.

What Kind of History Will Endure? David Herman

I'm striving to write a book that might, might, qualify as literature. That's the aspiration.
                                                                                          - David McCullough

A badly written history book is a bad history book.
                                                                                                      - Tony Judt

The last thirty years or so have seen an explosion of first-rate history books. Big books on big subjects: Orlando Figes on the Russian Revolution, Simon Schama on the French Revolution, Norman Davies' history of Europe, Tony Judt's history of post-war Europe, Fernandez-Armesto's Millennium, a thousand years of world history, fascinating new accounts of Nazism and eastern Europe by Jan Gross, Timothy Snyder and Mark Mazower, Antony Beevor's books on the Eastern Front, Jonathan Israel's two-volume history of the Enlightenment, Richard Evans' trilogy on Nazi Germany, Eamonn Duffy's history of the Reformation. And on and on. Original, ambitious, well written history books which have sold in their thousands, receiving critical acclaim, winning a new audience for history books. It is an exciting time to be reading history.

So it may seem perverse to ask which, if any, of these books will endure; which of these books will still be read in fifty or a hundred years' time. And it might seem even stranger to wonder if the answer might be none. Not one.

Of course, the scholar might reply. History moves on. New facts are discovered, rendering old books obsolete. In fifty years' time, historians will know so much more than we do now. Others will say, ...


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