BIG QUESTIONS IN HISTORY edited by HARRIET SWAIN: Puzzlers and problems

 |   |  1 min read

BIG QUESTIONS IN HISTORY edited by HARRIET SWAIN: Puzzlers and problems

History is, as a wise man once observed, just one damned thing after another. But we remain endlessly curious about it: each new generation or political ideology seeing it through its own prism and interpreting events accordingly.

Pity then the editor -- in this case Swain, deputy features editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement -- who tosses out 20 big questions to various academics for them to briefly essay.

Among the questions Swain asked these mostly British luminaries to comment on -- without the need to provide masses of leaden supporting evidence -- are those perennials which may have kept you awake at night: What is history? What wins wars? How do cultural booms happen? And how does private life affect public life?

Between them the academics, few of them familiar names outside academic circles other than perhaps Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, make a fine fist of answering the questions in a manner which is informative, stimulating and highly readable.

Sheila Rowbotham, professor of gender studies and labour history at Manchester University, tackles the private/public life conundrum by illuminating changes in perception, especially since feminism redefined the personal as political. And readers might wonder if the division between media and public interest in politicians' affairs reflects a Victorian moralism in the media which public sentiment doesn’t share . . . although the case of Bill Clinton makes an interesting exception.

Fernandez-Armesto makes an interesting case for a consideration of geography in interpreting history, and there is a fascinating essay on what makes a great leader followed by an equally compelling question, How Does Personality Affect Politics?

After each short but free-ranging essay there is a commentary, and sometimes counter-argument, by the editor or someone else from the magazine.

With a neat circularity from the opener What is history? to the final essay Can history have an end? (only ideologues argue that, according professor Benjamin Barber from Maryland), this makes for an intelligent, often informative and occasional provocative collection which will bring illumination to any argument or dinner table discussion.

Won't help you sleep more soundly however.   


Share It

Your Comments

post a comment

More from this section   Writing articles index

CAN'T BE SATISFIED, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MUDDY WATERS by ROBERT GORDON

CAN'T BE SATISFIED, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MUDDY WATERS by ROBERT GORDON

When McKinley Morganfield’s grandmother named him Muddy after the nearby Mississippi and he later took the surname Waters, there seemed something oddly symbolic in it. Here was man who... > Read more

THE STORY OF EDVARD MUNCH  by KETIL BJORNSTAD: Death at his shoulder

THE STORY OF EDVARD MUNCH by KETIL BJORNSTAD: Death at his shoulder

If we believe that, as is commonly said, great art is born of great suffering then Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was born to make great art. He certainly exceeded his quota of... > Read more

Elsewhere at Elsewhere

THE POPE VOTE: Angels and Demons, black smoke, white smoke

THE POPE VOTE: Angels and Demons, black smoke, white smoke

Dan Brown's Vatican-based thriller Angels and Demons typically raises lots of questions: notably why would you buy the book now when you can just go see the movie? But to give Brown his due, he... > Read more

Catherine Russell: Inside This Heart of Mine (World Village/Ode)

Catherine Russell: Inside This Heart of Mine (World Village/Ode)

With an excellent ensemble of understated but very classy players, jazz-cum-r'n'b singer Russell takes a sophisticated journey down the byways of ol' New Orleans, finger-snapping Swing Era sounds,... > Read more