I used to treat books like sacred relics. I would read them carefully, never making notes in the margin or dog-earing the pages. These days, I’m more tolerant. The physical condition of a book means something else to me: well-preserved books tend to be the ones I haven’t read much, whereas battered ones show me the importance they’ve held in my life.
Perhaps my most battered book of all is What is History? by E.H. Carr. This is not entirely my doing – I acquired the book from my school library, and the form in the front shows generations of schoolboys borrowing it, all the way back to “Skinner, September 1970”. The first few lines record its steadily deteriorating condition, but this petered out around 1978.
I think its condition was so bad that they told me I could keep it – or perhaps I stole it in a juvenile attempt at revenge. I can’t quite remember. In any case, I took it to university, and this is where the cover became detached and even the sellotape holding it together got eroded.
This book, you see, is a history undergraduate’s dream. It has a quote for every occasion, a whole raft of pithy observations on the nature of history that you really need at 3am when you’ve drunk so much whisky and coffee that you’re not sure which subject you’re meant to be studying.
I recently reread it one last time before it falls apart completely. The essential arguments are not as controversial as they were in 1961, but I’ve never seen such a lucid summary of issues on the study of history, so thought it would be worth a recap, especially given the nonsense I still sometimes hear about objectivity.
First of all, there is of course no such thing as objectivity. Carr shows this by studying what is meant by a historical fact. We think this is simple, but it isn’t. There are millions of facts about the past. At the same time as Hitler was invading Poland, my grandfather was mowing his lawn. The historian doesn’t record all the facts; she selects on the basis of significance.
But how is significance determined? First of all, it’s determined by important people at the time, who deemed Hitler’s invasion of Poland significant, while my grandfather’s lawn-mowing went unrecorded. Secondly it’s determined by the historian, who cannot divorce himself from his own preoccupations. Even the language he uses, words like democracy and empire, have a present-day resonance he cannot ignore. Indeed, history would be pointless unless it served some purpose in helping us understand the present. We try to learn the lessons of history, but our definition of those lessons is inevitably conditioned by what we want to learn. History, Carr argues, is “a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.” (Yes, I used that one a few times.)
Historians don’t even deal in facts for the most part. They deal in causes. “The great historian – or perhaps I should say more broadly, the great thinker – is the man who asks the question ‘Why?’ about new things or in new contexts.” Only the most simplistic school textbook would simply record that Hitler invaded Poland in 1939; the true historian does not linger long on such a fact before examining the causes.
Carr successfully demolishes the binary opposition of “determinism in history” versus “chance in history”, showing that causation in human affairs is complex and not reducible to a choice of “inevitable” or “accidental”. He loses me, though, when he distinguishes between “rational” and “accidental” causes, saying that historians focus on causes that lead to fruitful generalisations to other countries and periods, rather than one-off accidents like Lenin’s premature death or Alexander’s monkey-bite. To me, those events are as important a part of history as the “rational” causes, whether or not they have broader lessons to impart.
In the chapter “History as Progress”, Carr cleverly charts the changes in the concept of progress over time, and shows how at moments of optimism and success, historians believe in progress, while at moments of bleakness they lose this belief. In the late nineteenth century, the British Empire was at its zenith, but in 1961, when he wrote this book, it was in decline. Now, it’s tough to find anybody who subscribes to the idea of progress.
Overall this is a really good read for anyone interested in the process of writing history. Although it’s a 50-year-old book it is still very relevant, and still eminently quotable 😉