I make no secret about my love for my country and its history. If you hang around Reflections long enough, you’ll see me address topics like World War II (in which my father fought) and the JFK assassination. But history can be a contentious subject these days, with many views—some reasonable, some decidedly not—vying for the chance to shape the way we see America’s past.
So, when RTB editor Maureen Moser asked me for advice on choosing a reliable history book, we thought we’d turn our discussion into an interview to share with you. Though we address American history specifically, the approach I recommend is applicable to any country’s history.
Ken, with so many options available, how do you go about evaluating a book to see if it’s a worthwhile investment of time and money?
Part of what makes choosing a history book challenging today is the prevailing influence of postmodernism and moral relativism. You have to be especially careful when selecting a book. Ask yourself, what is the worldview reflected by the author?
In light of potential uncertainty, I would suggest getting a recommendation. This could be the word of a trusted friend, an endorsement from a good historian, or even reviews from other readers posted on a site like Amazon. Do some homework before investing in a history book and be very selective in your choices.
How can you tell which historians honor the facts and the truth, regardless of their own biases, and which allow their worldview to color their portrayal of American history?
For me, because I watch the History Channel and have a degree in history, I’m familiar with some of the big-name authors. These people may have a particular bias—they may lean left or right politically, they may give more emphasis to the traditional or to the contemporary view of history—but if I think they practice fair-mindedness when they speak or write on a particular subject, then I’m okay with that.
To give you a specific example, I am, of course, very interested in the Kennedy assassination. I’ve seen many of the experts and witnesses interviewed. So, I know immediately if someone is an over-the-top conspiracy theorist. Even though that view differs from mine, I still want to read the most thoughtful conspiracy theory treatment of the assassination. I happened to find one in G. Robert Blakey’s work. He’s a thoughtful attorney who’s very careful with the JFK assassination—so even though he believes the Mafia killed the president, I read two of his books.
And I would do the same for any area of history. If I thought a World War II historian was fair-minded—even if he leaned in a direction that was different from my view—I’d still read his work.
How do you find a balance between a rose-colored view of American history and an overly negative view?
I think a good example of the tug-of-war between those two positions is how the founding fathers of our nation are portrayed. There are authors who would like to paint all of the founding fathers as rich, white slave owners who took advantage of people. Talk about painting with a broad brush!
Now on the other side, there are historians who will paint all the founding fathers as Christians—and I know that’s not true. Jefferson, for example, was not a Christian. Likely some of these men held a more deistic view, though there were some bright, shining Christian examples.
So, from the two extreme perspectives, they’re either all bad because they didn’t get the issues of race, gender, and class “right” or virtually all the founding fathers were Christian. I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. There’s bad and good in the founding fathers of our country. Though from my perspective, mostly good.
As a side note, I don’t really have a problem with a historian using race, gender, and class categories, although, as a Christian, I would prefer truth, goodness, and beauty. I’m not saying that race, gender, and class are unimportant—but I want to know that I’m getting a fair-minded perspective. I want to know that an author is aware of these two extreme views and that he or she is willing to let historical figures shine on their own merit.
I think of the HBO miniseries John Adams. It was, of course, based on a book. I thought there was some balance there. They addressed Adams’ positive qualities, while also dealing with the darker issues of that time. So, I don’t mind if a historian engages in some of the issues that are important today, as long as they address all sides of a story and strive to represent people in their historical contexts.
To give another example, when I was a kid, I read every WWII book I could get my hands on. And back then all these books attributed the cause of the war to evil men who wanted to rule the world. But years later, as I bought WWII books to read with my son, I noticed the causes of the war were grayer. These books had more of a postmodern view of the war. I think that reflects the zeitgeist of our time.
I don’t expect scholars to be perfect. I recognize that they’re going to have political biases. I recognize that they’re going to come from different schools of thought. But I think the really good books are those that make you feel like you’ve engaged the subject without being pushed in one direction. There should be no coercion of the reader to hold a particular view. Let me come to my own conclusions.
When it comes to history, an author needs to be a historian first, a commentator second. For history teachers, they need to be an educator first, an advocate second. The Internet is helpful for researching a particular historian to see if that person will provide “the straight scoop.”
Would you recommend going to original sources, such as letters and diaries?
Yes, absolutely, if you can get them. Some original sources are more available than others; some are more readable. Secondary sources may then help you think through the original source.
I will add that I also recommend reading an author who does think very differently from you. Try to find the best book “on the other side.” Ask, who is the most reasonable, who is the most fair-minded?
I’m not sure if we do enough of that. Naturally, we enjoy being around people who think like we do. It’s more comfortable that way. Yet what if we’re missing something? I like to hear perspectives from outside my own view—but they have to be reasonable.
Could you recommend a few trustworthy historians for people to look into?
I’ll recommend a few authors on specific historical topics. On WWII, I appreciate Stephen Ambrose and John Keegan. Concerning the assassination of President Kennedy, I recommend William Manchester and John K. Lattimer. With regard to America’s founding fathers, I like David McCullough, the author of John Adams.