Reading history

Some Suggestions on Critically Evaluating Your Reading in History

Historians commonly distinguish between primary sources and secondary sources. A primary source is a source created at the time of the event you are interested in--an eyewitness account, a newspaper editorial, a set of letters, a manuscript census return, a photograph, even a physical artifact such as the ruins of a house. A secondary source is an account or interpretation of the event which is based, in turn, on primary sources. Thus a work of history is a secondary source.

In reading a work of history (a secondary source), the place to begin is to seek out the author's main points--to find out what she is trying to tell you. Only when you understand what it is she wants to convince you, can you begin to ask critical questions about the book or article. Basic to this task is the distinction between theme and thesis (plural, theses). Essentially the theme is what the book or article is about; the thesis is what it attempts to prove. All books have a theme, or topic; good ones have both a theme and a thesis (or, in fact, several theses with one or two dominant ones which run through the entire work). A thesis is often quite simple and direct, not necessarily an extremely subtle or brilliantly new idea. But it is an idea which needs explanation and defense before you, the reader, can be expected to agree to it.

The main theses of a work are usually to be found stated clearly in the introductory chapter and the final chapter. In a chapter or essay, they will usually appear at the beginning and near the conclusion. So these are the parts to read first. You probably don't need to read each page consecutively, from page 1 to page 488. Instead, rapidly read through the preface, introduction, and conclusion. Also, look over the table of contents, bibliography, and footnotes. Rather quickly you ought to be able to get a sense of the scope of the book or essay and of its central points or theses. Similarly, glance over each chapter before reading it more carefully. Generally you will find that the details of the argument, the examples, the dates and names, stick with you much more easily when you understand their place in the over-all argument which the work is making.

If a history book is reasonably clearly laid out, you ought to be able to read and evaluate it in a couple of hours or so. Try it--test yourself! Give yourself, say, 45 minutes to look over a history book, after which you will write a page describing the main points of the book. This won't work with a textbook, which is too big and compressed and will probably have to be read more slowly--but you could do it with each chapter of a textbook.

Having figured out what the author is saying, how do you critically appraise the work? Unfortunately, some students find this difficult because they think such an appraisal requires that one be an authority in the field with which the book deals. Obviously, if you are an authority it makes the job of evaluation easier. But, equally so, to be an authority on every book you read is rarely the case for anyone; even a world authority on a given subject reads books in fields in which he or she is relatively uninformed. Yet he must try, if he is to be a thoughtful person, to come to some conclusions as to the value of the book. Likewise, you may not be an authority comparable to the authors you read, but you can exercise your critical faculties on the interpretations they advance.

You can do this not by attempting to impugn or dispute the evidence--that generally requires considerable expertise in the field--but by trying to see whether the evidence actually supports the conclusions the author draws, or whether it adds up to what she asserts it does. As you read, questions should rise in your mind: Are the author's examples representative or only exceptions? Does she offer sufficient examples to illustrate the case thoroughly, and to suggest that many more examples could have been introduced had space permitted? Does the view agree with views you have read about elsewhere or with what you know from personal experience? Does the author interpret a bit of evidence in one way, but you can see that it might logically be interpreted equally well in another fashion? Does she explicitly acknowledge arguments contrary to her own, and convincingly explain why they are inadequate?

Such questions as the above rely on a distinction between fact and interpretation. Actually, this distinction is rather difficult to delineate. The more you read and think about history, the more you will recognize that the line between fact and interpretation is not at all clear. This is so partly because large numbers of so-called "facts" are actually generalizations or interpretations, but have attained the status of "facts" because they are so well established that no one argues about them. For example, it is a fact, in this sense, that in the sixteenth century the influx of gold from America into western Europe caused a marked rise in prices. Obviously this is not a fact of the same order as the statement, "Abraham Lincoln was born February 12, 1809," but both have more in common with each other than with the statement, "There is some reason to believe that the Negro suffered less than any other class in the South from slavery." The latter assertion is clearly an interpretation--a conclusion drawn by the author from his study of the history of the pre-Civil War South. It may be true, it may be exaggerated, it may be wrong; but immediately upon reading it we recognize that this is not something everyone accepts.

Another problem with the fact-interpretation distinction is that historians, like all social observers, select their facts. That is, they choose from an infinite number of data about everything that ever happened in the past. But their choice of facts is shaped by the questions they ask. The facts are not simply lying there, waiting for the observer to come along and put them in the "correct" pattern. The facts are selected depending on the author's questions and methodological approach. We might even say that without interpretation, there can be no facts. For more on this subject, see chapter one of E.H. Carr, What Is History?.

Critical reading does not necessarily mean disagreement with the author's thesis or evidence. But if you agree, you should know why you agree. Similarly, you should be able to explain why you disagree and to think of evidence supporting your opinion. It is important to be specific in either case. Only by giving specific reasons why you agree or disagree with a point made by the author can you make clear what your own standards of judgment are.

Bearing in mind that these questions often will not work, you might find the following helpful some of the time:

1. What seem to be the author's assumptions and values? (Sometimes these are not directly stated.) What kind of academic training or other experience did the author have? What kinds of evidence does the author feel comfortable using? Whom does he appear to be addressing? Why does he think the topic is significant? Does he seem to subscribe to some ideological system such as Marxism (but don't let it prejudice you against the writer)?

2. How does the work relate to other reading in the course, or other books you've read? How does it relate to your personal experience?

3. If the author is correct, so what? Does the work suggest further questions or problems to be examined? Does it change our view of the past or of the present?

If each good work of history has a thesis that the author is trying to elaborate and defend, that implies that historical writing is a kind of ongoing debate about the past. Historians occasionally bring to light new evidence--new facts--but for the most part, they debate issues of interpretation. No serious historian doubts that the Holocaust occurred, for example, but they are still debating many questions about the Holocaust. Was the event a logical outcome of deeply-rooted antisemitic attitudes in German (and European) culture or was it an aberration? Did most Germans know about and support the Holocaust? Was it a unique event or should we view it as one among many attempts in world history to destroy entire peoples? What have been the effects of the event on postwar European politics and culture? Discussion centers on why and how an event took place and what the consequences of the event have been. This applies not only to the Holocaust but to many other events of the past from the voyages of Columbus to the invention of the computer.

In your reading, then, you should not expect that historians will always agree, and you should not write a paper by trying to add up everything they say about a subject and assuming that the sum equals "the truth." Instead, look for areas of disagreement, issues that people seem to be discussing and debating and on which two or more interpretive ideas seem to have taken shape. Those unsettled areas are the ones your professor is likely to want to discuss in class. They are the ones where you yourself can most readily make a contribution as a writer of history.

--KJ, 7/99


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