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

GONEVILLE by NICK BOLLINGER

GONEVILLE by NICK BOLLINGER

Although they are never going to challenge the unassailable supremacy of cookbooks and the lives of people who play sport for money, there has been a discernible increase in the number of books... > Read more

THOMAS KOHNSTAMM INTERVIEWED: Finding comfort and hell on this Lonely Planet

THOMAS KOHNSTAMM INTERVIEWED: Finding comfort and hell on this Lonely Planet

Some years ago I was invited by Lonely Planet to write for them. This was flattering and exciting, but there was a catch: I would have to undertake a research trip at my own expense and write it up... > Read more

Elsewhere at Elsewhere

DEXTER GORDON CONSIDERED (2014): It's time to Go again

DEXTER GORDON CONSIDERED (2014): It's time to Go again

In one iconic photo by Herman Leonard taken in New York in 1948, the cool of Dexter Gordon -- his cigarette smoke coiling up above him -- came to symbolise and codify the image of jazz for many.... > Read more

BENJAMIN ZEPHANIAH INTERVIEWED (2000):  The people's poet laureate

BENJAMIN ZEPHANIAH INTERVIEWED (2000): The people's poet laureate

Britain's most popular serious performance poet for more than two decades, Benjamin Zephaniah, laughs as he recalls hating poetry as a kid. If you said you liked it, it was as if you were... > Read more