Friday, February 13, 2009

1421: A Note on Notes, Part 1

Before we get in to the rhythm of things, I'm going to set a base line. There's "good" history and there's "bad" history. If I draw a distinction between good and bad it's not a value judgment of the thing that happened. Rather, it's a value judgment about the work done to put it in to a book. One of the things you have to know as a historian is how to read a history book. It's important to know something about the author. For instance, in looking at the "About the Author" information in 1421, we learn that Gavin Menzies lived in China for a short time as an infant, was in the Royal Navy, during which time he sailed the very same seas sailed by Magellan, has visited many museums, and between the hardcover and paperback versions of 1421 he wrote a book about how the Chinese showed up in Italy in 1434 and kicked off the Renaissance. What we don't find out about Gavin Menzies is what historical credentials he brings to his work. My guess is that the answer is "none whatsoever." Oh, and we learn that he's kind of creepy looking. Or, possibly, that he's just one of those people the camera doesn't like very much (for the record, I've seen him on TV. He doesn't look particularly creepy on video). Now, not being a historian by trade isn't exactly a deal breaker. For instance, Ian Toll's Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy is his first book. It's also, as best I can tell, his first foray in to history in any capacity. Before deciding to write a book he was a financial analyst for Wall Street and the Fed, a political aide, and a speechwriter. None of these things says, "Hey, he'd make an excellent historian." Funny thing about history: you don't actually have to have a degree to be good at it. The purpose of the process of becoming a historian is to make sure the student knows what he or she is doing. A gifted amateur who can figure out the process, though, can do just as well as a tenured professor with a doctorate. It also helps if that gifted amateur isn't trying to break any new ground and simply trying to put a narrative framework around an extremely well-documented bit of history. That's exactly what Toll did with Six Frigates. He wrote a fantastic book. Oh, and he's not creepy looking, which helps. Gavin Menzies isn't a particularly gifted amateur. And he's certainly not traveling a well-worn path with his books. This is the first red flag. But, again, it's not necessarily a deal breaker. It's just a sign that the reader needs to tread carefully. As with any good mystery novel, you have to start a history book at the end. There are long and extremely boring sections at the end of every history book that are filled with end notes and bibliographic information. I can, and have, rejected history books without ever looking at anything other than the title, author, and notes. This isn't an issue of historical snobbery, but accuracy. History is a path of discussions. Way back at the beginning there was the thing that happened. From there history fans out. From the initial players and witnesses we go to the primary sources: newspaper reports and interviews with witnesses and such. Everything after that is more degraded by degrees, like photocopies of photocopies. Since human perception is limited and there's no perfect story about the event, the farther removed we are from an event the more skeptical we must be. This is why sources are important. I developed a saying around the end of my undergrad studies. "If we don't have a source it probably didn't happen. If we only have one source, it probably didn't happen that way." This, I believe, encapsulates the skepticism a historian must bring to the field of study. For instance, we've got the George Washington cherry tree story. There is no original source on that and it's not particularly believable, so it probably didn't happen. Our older texts are often the sole surviving accounts of things. This is why the historian in me eventually rejected fundamentalist Christianity. We only have one source for the vast majority of stuff in the Bible. You can argue until you're blue in the face that god hisownself wrote the book and, therefore, it's all 100% true. But that doesn't mean you're right. Some of the Bible is good history. Most of it either isn't or can't be proven either way. Therefore you have to take it with a grain of salt. And if it seems utterly impossible, like, say, a flood that completely covers the whole of the Earth, it's best to assume it didn't happen. It shouldn't come as a surprise, but the notes in 1421 leave much to be desired. The notes section is seventeen and a half pages long. That probably seems like a lot. In fact, it's half a page longer than the notes section in Robin Waterfield's Xenophon's Retreat, a book upon which I've heaped much praise. There's a minor problem, though. Xenophon's Retreat is 211 pages long*. 1421 is 489. This is a problem. The bibliography/notes** section of a historical work is key. The longer the work, the more notes there should be. It's a direct correlation. Ian Toll's Six Frigates clocks in at 482 pages and has a bibliography/notes section that spans 56 pages. This tells us that he might not be a historian in the traditional sense, but he'd done his homework and he's prepared to back it up. John Darwin's After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405, another book I love and one that will factor heavily in this series, clocks in at 506 pages with a notes/further reading*** section of 60 pages. As I've said, the more sources the better. For instance, Alex Kershaw's The Few, a book about American airmen who served for the RAF during the Battle of Britain, reads like a novel. It's part of a new type of history that's built more around the narrative and putting the reader in the moment. It's also a 239 page book with a 43 page notes section. Books that attempt to break ground on a brand new argument or a new presentation of old evidence have an even greater necessity for extensive proof. Darwin's After Tamerlane is a good example of just such a book. My personal favorite, however, is William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. The book is 385 pages long and has a notes/bibliography section that's, I shit you not, 110 pages long. All of this is what the author feels is necessary to back up his thesis that Chicago is the city it is because geography dictated that the perfect place for a modern, dominating metropolis on an industrialized American continent is right at the southern tip of Lake Michigan. When you think about it for a while, then look at his arguments and evidence it seems rather obvious. But that's kind of the point. In the Hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain & the American Civil War, Alice Rains Trulock's excellent biography of my personal favorite historical figure, is 381 pages long and has a notes/selected bibliography that spans 154 pages. Her notes, however, are extensive, insightful, and usually take the form of long paragraphs. Again, the more information the historian presents, the better. In the case of Trulock's book, they give a great deal of insight and flavor. Also, like Toll, she was not a trained and professional historian. But she knew what she was doing. Finally, just because I can, Geoffrey Perret's Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President is 478 pages long with a 50 page notes section. So here we have a list seven history books I have read over the years and enjoyed and appreciated. Nature's Metropolis was an assignment for a college course. The Grant book was one I picked up at random because I had to read and write a report on a biography. The Few was a Christmas gift. I got the book about Chamberlain because I was looking for one. The other three were books that I picked up because I was wandering around a bookstore and they caught my eye. All of the books I've mentioned are books I would recommend as excellent history. Other than the Cronon one, which is extremely dry and dense, and Darwin's, which is extremely dense but not as dry, all of the books are built around narrative and move rather quickly. This is, I'm told something they have in common with 1421. It's why, though, you can't judge a book by its cover. All of the blurbs on 1421 are built around how it's a great read and it turns history on its head. The blurbs on Six Frigates and Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President let the reader know how easy a read they are, too. The blurbs on After Tamerlane are about how Darwin turns conventional wisdom on its head. Don't trust blurbs. A lively history book is a good thing. A history book that challenges preconceptions is a good thing. History isn't, and shouldn't have to be dry. History is also always changing (odd statement, that). It's tough to tell the value of a history book on the blurbs or by the author's biography. Flip to the back of the book. Find the notes, find the bibliography. And if it feels rather light, consider that a red flag. 1421 starts off with a big one. -------------------------- *When I give page counts I'm talking about the body. Read any note counts as additional pages at the back, so Xenophon's Retreat is 211 pages + 17 pages of notes + whatever else for an index, preface, and whatnot. **I'm using bibliography and notes as a combined concept here. It technically shouldn't be. If a book is using end notes and I'm comparing it to a book that uses footnotes, for instance, I'd be doing a major disservice to the latter book. The bibliography tells you what sources an author looked at. That doesn't mean that the author actually used the source in question. The notes tell you what an idea is based off of or meant to contradict. To the untrained eye the Notes will look a lot like a Bibliography, but there's a page number attached to a Note and the note itself is attached to a specific citation so that the reader can find the information. Notes are deeply important. ***The further reading section is basically a bibliography as a narrative. Rather than a simply, alphabetical list of books, it breaks the bibliography down by some system, generally chapter or topic and lets the reader know why they might want to pick the book up. It's usually longer than a comparable bibliography and usually not as exhaustive, but it's still a valid resource and can be far more useful if you're simply looking for more books to read, as it takes the guesswork out of te reader's hands by basically saying, "The author found this book helpful for this topic. You might, too.


PersonalFailure said...

developed a saying around the end of my undergrad studies. "If we don't have a source it probably didn't happen. If we only have one source, it probably didn't happen that way." This, I believe, encapsulates the skepticism a historian must bring to the field of study.

Actually, that's a useful maxim in any field of study. "Really, one study by the Defend Marriage Foundation says that gays are terrible parents? Yeah, not so much."

hapax said...

PF, which is why guys like Proxmire and his Golden Fleece award (ptui, ptui) simply didn't get it.

"We already have one study demonstrating that Piffles lead to Promple, why should we fund another?"

What part of "replicabilitity" don't you understand? (Okay, *all* of it...)

Me, I use Bibliographies to judge whether or not the author is familiar with the extent literature on the issue (you'd be surprised how often they aren't); endnotes are to judge whether or not they are willing to back up particular assertions with cited evidence; and footnotes (mmm... footnotes) are for parenthetical asides, tangents, expansions, and quotations in the original language.

Geds said...


Totally. That's why I'm breaking this in to two (three?) parts. The first part is quantity, then quality. Thank you for reminding me of the familiarity issue, though. I think I would have shortchanged it. When I was writing research papers my favorite prof had a rule against using mostly secondary sources that were older than, as I recall, 15 or 20 years. If there wasn't anything newer, then he'd deal, but if you could get newer sources, get them.

I actually started off the next post with a rant about how much I hate end notes. It seems like there's a swing every few years, at least in history, between end notes and footnotes. I, personally, want all my notes on the same page. I don't care if that requires a quarter page of text to three-quarters notes.

But that's a flavor thing. The progression you mentioned is clean and actually rather nice. But I'm just as interested in what research the author is basing this or that assertion off of as I am in the additional flavor and side notes.

I find that I'm less likely to flip to the end of the book to check notes. I don't know if I'm alone in that tendency, but it makes keeping the author accountable slightly more annoying.