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Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past

av Richard Cohen

MedlemmarRecensionerPopularitetGenomsnittligt betygOmnämnanden
1341207,918 (4.13)3
"A fascinating, epic exploration of who gets to record the world's history -- from Julius Caesar to William Shakespeare to Ken Burns -- and how their biases influence our understanding about the past. There are many stories we can spin about previous ages, but which accounts get told? And by whom? Is there even such a thing as "objective" history? In this lively and thought-provoking book, Richard Cohen reveals how professional historians and other equally significant witnesses, such as the writers of the Bible, novelists, and political propagandists, influence what becomes the accepted record. Cohen argues, for example, that some historians are practitioners of "Bad History" and twist reality to glorify themselves or their country. Making History investigates the published works and private utterances of our greatest chroniclers to discover the agendas that informed their -- and our -- views of the world. From the origins of history writing, when such an activity itself seemed revolutionary, through to television and the digital age, Cohen brings captivating figures to vivid light, from Thucydides and Tacitus to Voltaire and Gibbon, Winston Churchill and Henry Louis Gates. Rich in complex truths and surprising anecdotes, the result is a revealing exploration of both the aims and art of history-making, one that will lead us to rethink how we learn about our past and about ourselves."--… (mer)
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Lives of Western historians (here and there, mention of others, mostly in China), with occasional context. Perhaps oddly or perhaps not, Cohen spends far more time on America’s post-Civil War context before writing about American historians of race & the Civil War than he does explaining the world of Thucydides. ( )
  rivkat | Mar 16, 2023 |
Richard Cohen was once one of our foremost book editors as well as being an Olympic sabre champion. Since moving to New York 20 years ago he has turned author himself, writing books on Tolstoy, the sun and his own sport of swordsmanship. Now he focuses his attention on historians.

His aim, he tells us at the outset of this superb survey from Herodotus to Mary Beard, is to discover the opinions, biases and open prejudices of those who chronicled the past and thus shaped the way we view it. Making History is very much a compendium of his own tastes and enthusiasms, and cheerfully omits such masters as Clarendon and Carlyle, whose histories of the English Civil War and the French Revolution laid the foundations of all subsequent historiography of those events. But Cohen’s prejudices make for a highly entertaining read: his fencer’s eye skewers the quirky and bizarre, and he peppers his informative essays and potted biographies with anecdotes that reveal his chosen historians in all their gamey glory.

We hear, for example, the (possibly apocryphal) story of how those great rivals A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor Roper were mischievously commissioned to write each other’s obituaries, and then, by accident or design, sent each other’s work for revision in the wrong envelopes. Cohen probes the weak points in their armour: how both men were seduced from writing the big books expected of them by the new genre of TV history – something which Taylor practically invented – or the rewards of tabloid journalism.

He also catches the sadness in their lives – the doubts and disappointments that the donnish point-scoring and vicious reviews could not conceal: how Taylor was bled dry by his wife’s ruinous passion for Dylan Thomas, and how Lord Dacre (as Trevor Roper became) went to his grave with the mocking laughter of long-scorned colleagues ringing in his ears for his over-hasty authentication of the forged Hitler diaries. (‘Fuck Dacre: Publish!’ was Rupert Murdoch’s famous response when told that the historian was having second thoughts.)

Readers will have their own quibbles with Cohen’s choice of subjects to highlight. For me, he is too reverent of the school of Marxists that dominated British history in the mid 20th century – Christopher Hill, E.H. Carr, E.P. Thompson et al – and also far too easy on Eric Hobsbawm, who infamously argued that the millions of deaths caused by Stalin would have been worthwhile if they had produced ‘radiant tomorrows’ for humanity in general. At least Hill had the decency to leave the Communist party after the repression of Hungary’s revolution in 1956, whereas Hobsbawm remained a member until its dissolution.

Cohen lays a few swishes of his bastinado on the many academics today who continue to write arid books, seemingly for each other. If we are to learn from history, he argues, it should at least be readable – and great historians such as Gibbon, Macaulay and Trevelyan wrote like angels.

Undeniably most of what has passed for history until recently has been produced by white males about the deeds of other white males. Much has changed, and credit belongs partly to Barbara Tuchman, C.V. Wedgwood and Cecil Woodham-Smith – a trio of white women scholars who first broke out of the box to write pioneering works, chiefly of military history – though, as Cohen points out, two of them disguised their gender to do so.

Some of the historians whose stories Cohen recounts – Caesar, Churchill and Stalin for example – were themselves the makers of the history they wrote about, and blew their own trumpets. As Churchill said: ‘It will be found much better by all parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history myself.’ Sprinkling his stardust over the research of a team of young historians, he did just that.

Witty, wise and elegant, this tremendous book deserves to become a classic of history itself.

WRITTEN BY
Nigel Jones
Nigel Jones is a historian and journalist. His next book ‘Kitty’s Salon: Sex, Spying & Surveillance in the Third Reich’ will be published by Bonnier next year.
 
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"A fascinating, epic exploration of who gets to record the world's history -- from Julius Caesar to William Shakespeare to Ken Burns -- and how their biases influence our understanding about the past. There are many stories we can spin about previous ages, but which accounts get told? And by whom? Is there even such a thing as "objective" history? In this lively and thought-provoking book, Richard Cohen reveals how professional historians and other equally significant witnesses, such as the writers of the Bible, novelists, and political propagandists, influence what becomes the accepted record. Cohen argues, for example, that some historians are practitioners of "Bad History" and twist reality to glorify themselves or their country. Making History investigates the published works and private utterances of our greatest chroniclers to discover the agendas that informed their -- and our -- views of the world. From the origins of history writing, when such an activity itself seemed revolutionary, through to television and the digital age, Cohen brings captivating figures to vivid light, from Thucydides and Tacitus to Voltaire and Gibbon, Winston Churchill and Henry Louis Gates. Rich in complex truths and surprising anecdotes, the result is a revealing exploration of both the aims and art of history-making, one that will lead us to rethink how we learn about our past and about ourselves."--

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