Not all history is created equal. The simple truth is that a lot of history that gets written is pretty shallow. It can be shallow in its depth of research, in its understanding of the context, in its understanding of the scholarly conversation, or in many other ways. If we are interested in some historical question we can do an internet search and we will likely get a lot of different histories, some better and some worse. What makes one better than the other?
I was recently recommended a book written by a truly superb historian about how he does what he does. Reading on the practice of history is one of my favorite things and so I picked up the book. It was so captivating that I read it the first day it arrived. It was incredible for its insight into the depths of serious history.
The historian is Robert Caro and the book is Working. Caro’s historical writing has won a mountain of awards and has been recognized by some of the best historians as the gold standard. Caro’s first book was an in-depth look at Robert Moses, the man who is largely responsible for the way that New York City looks and functions today. The Power Broker was published in 1975 and vaulted Caro into international recognition (and his first Pulitzer). It is not often that a 1,300 page book becomes a best seller, but that’s what this was. Caro has gone on to write a multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson (he is currently writing volume five, the first four volumes total more than 3,500 pages). The third volume, Master of the Senate, on Johnson’s time as leader of the US Senate, won Caro his second Pulitzer.
What makes Caro so great? How does he do what he does? What does it take to write great history? His book gets at those questions, but the overriding reality is that he is incredibly dedicated to his craft. His first book took him seven years of full-time work to write. The Lyndon Johnson books have consumed his time for nearly fifty years. He has spent years in archives (the Johnson archives have in excess of 32 million pages of documents to look through), years interviewing people (thousands of interviews, some people dozens of times each), and even moved to different areas of the country for years so that he could understand the place and people better (it took this kind of interest for many locals to eventually open up about their first-hand knowledge). This is long-term, patient, and diligent work. This is very different from the type of historical research that a google search might find, where someone read for a couple hours one afternoon and now “understands” the “true” history. In other words, not all history is created equal.
Caro’s work reminded me of an interview I saw years ago with another great historian, Peter Brown. Brown is well-known as the historian of “late antiquity.” You may wonder what late antiquity is. It is the name historians give to the time period when the ancient world (antiquity) transitioned into the medieval world (4th to 6th century AD). Actually, it was Brown who gave it this name and, through decades of work, successfully showed why it needed to be understood on its own terms. His scholarly output is amazing. In a way similar to Caro, Brown has gone the extra miles to understand the people and places he has written about. Brown has travelled extensively through the Mediterranean world and has mastered not just the written documents but the artifacts as well. To maximize his travels and his study he has learned more than twenty languages. This is a huge amount of work. How does he do it? The interview I linked to above gives a brief glimpse into the daily routine of a scholar such as Brown. “Every day, he wakes up at 4 a.m. He then studies up to three languages, each for an hour, using books and recordings… Next, he takes a walk in a local park… Finally, he reads historical texts intensively, relaxing the pace of his schedule as the day wears on.” This sort of routine has yielded incredible results over the space of half a century. Brown is one of those rare few scholars whose work has created a new field of studies: late antiquities.
My point in sharing these snippets is simple: the time you have spent immersing yourself in the history of something is indicative of your level of historical understanding. Isn’t the same true for other disciplines, such as playing a musical instrument or learning a craft? This is a window into what a true scholar and expert does. I’ve heard some say that our social media age has democratized expertise. That is true in the sense that in the short barbs that get thrown back and forth on social media the best expert and biggest fool get equal voice. Often, the winner (if there is such a thing) is the one with the loudest contingency/mob behind them. Yet, I would like to think actual expertise and understanding matter. There is an old truism that says just because you won or lost a debate does not mean you are right or wrong, it just means you either did or did not have more information at that one moment in time than the other person. Social media takes such a notion to absurdity, but the point runs true in other arenas of conversation. Real understanding and expertise takes time. It takes patience. It takes consistency. It means we are not satisfied with those simplistic explanations. It wants to know the truth. Now, we don’t need to and can’t be experts at everything. But we need to remember the difference to be able to distinguish actual experts from frauds. And, if we are going to claim to be an expert in something, then we need those virtues of patience, consistency, diligence, and love of truth.