Ursuline convent, Quebec, July 10, 2015
Liz Covart has a post on her blog called “How to Write for Your Readers,” which is effectively a post about “How to Write for Readers Beyond Your Colleagues and their Students.” She points out that journalists are very effective at writing history books that people actually buy and read. They’re eating our lunches!
History books written by journalists tend to be more popular than those written by professionally-trained historians because journalists write them to reveal history in a way that readers want to discover more about it.
In contrast, professionally-trained historians tend to write books that emphasize argument. Historians present the main topic of their book in a way that supports the case they are trying to make. Our books tend to be more about argument than story.
To encourage historians to think about story first, she reports on an interview with Mitchell Zuckoff, a journalism professor and author of two historical books that landed on the New York Times bestseller list, she shares his very good advice for effective storytelling. His advice–quite good, actually–boils down to these three points: Find a fascinating story focused on human actors, make sure there are plenty of sources to help you tell it, and finally, write the story for a broad audience and rewrite agressively. I especially like his advice about reading your drafts out loud to identify writing and syntax problems, and to help you cut out the parts that just aren’t working. (Read Liz’s discussion of his advice–it’s more thorough than this brief summary.)
This is all good advice, but I think the issue of journalists who write books that people buy versus historians who write books for other historians is oversimplified, and ignores the question of resources, platforms, and marketing that work to the advantage of the journalists who write a history book or two. Commercial publishers want to publish books not to help obscure writers make a name for themselves; they want to publish books by people who are already well-known because they think (rightly!) that a journalist with a prominent perch at a national newspaper or (better yet) who regularly appear on television will help them sell more books. Continue reading
End of the cog railway on Pike’s Peak in Colorado
I’m in the last six weeks of completing my second book (and third monograph!) and the end of my last research trip to Québec, so it’s the end of the line for me. As much as I’ve been itching to get this book done, it’s a little sad now to think of not returning to Québec. It’s too bad, because I’ve got the condo situation sussed out, my favorite épiceries and boulangeries figured out, the vagaries of seventeenth and eighteenth-century French navigated, and now this information will become irrelevant to anyone (including me) in the next few years. Isn’t it always the case that just as we get good at something, it’s time to wrap it up and move along?
I guess the only way to avoid this feeling is never to finish a project, which is just a bridge too far for me. I take pride on being the kind of historian who can get stuff done, get it out, and move along. I’m a perfectionist, but I also recognize that there is such a thing as the best book I can write right now. I just can’t nibble a project to death.
All this week, I’ve had two alternating thoughts as I’ve reviewed some of the archival material I’ve taken notes on already, as well as a few new items: first, omigod, how did I miss this the first time around??? and next, OK, this helps you and merely adds a few choice details to the story you’re already telling. Still, don’t most of us wonder how many wonderful, awful stories we’ve missed? Continue reading
Mother St. Barabra of the Swizzle Stick
Some of us had a little doll-related fun on Twitter today. Liz Covart (of Benjamin Franklin’s World) went in search of Betsy Ross Barbie, and was amazed to find it; Marla Miller, who first tipped us off to the existence of this Barbie, suggested that we all immediately Google “George Washington Barbie,” which of course we did.
I’ve got a barbie none can beat, friends–my Ursuline Barbie! But enough about my dolls; I’m here to tell you that I’ve been thinking about all of my book-related dolls and historical dolls in general while I’ve been walking around Québec this week, as Québec (like France) seems to have a weird fascination with both larger- and smaller-than-life representations of the human form. That is to say, I’m a huge fan of dolls, and even I’m a little creeped out by it.
Greetings from Cap Diamant!
While I was buying a ticket Saturday afternoon to tour the archaeological dig of Chateau St. Louis, the remains of the original fort and governors’ houses in Québec City, I was wished a “bonne fête” (happy holiday). The Parks Canada employee had to remind me that “c’est le quatre Juillet!” (“it’s the Fourth of July!”) Duh. I had spent all morning and most the afternoon at the Cathedral on a top-secret mission, and I think my brain was working so hard trying to speak and read French again that the American holiday fell completely out of my consciousness.
Having spent Independence Day weekend with our Francophone neighbors to the North, I may be particularly susceptible to this argument by Dylan Matthews, “3 Reasons the American Revolution was a Mistake.” After all, the people of Québec famously refused Benedict Arnold’s kind offer to join with their southern neighbors to throw off the yoke of British tyranny. The legacy of more than a century of warfare with rabidly anti-Catholic New England colonists made Anglo-Americans unreliable allies in the eyes of most Canadians, to say the least.
Here’s Matthews’s argument, in brief–first and foremost, slavery ended sooner in the British empire, and he uses Canada as a compelling counter-example for U.S. Americans to consider:
Abolition in most of the British Empire occurred in 1834, following the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act. That left out India, but slavery was banned there too in 1843. In England itself, slavery was illegal at least going back to 1772. That’s decades earlier than the United States.
This alone is enough to make the case against the revolution. Decades less slavery is a massive humanitarian gain that almost certainly dominates whatever gains came to the colonists from independence.
Second, the American Revolution was really bad for First Nations peoples–not that Canada’s record is awesome, just less awful than U.S. imperial expansion: Continue reading
Everything changes, nothing perishes: or so we hope.
Historians and other humanists who work with historical documents: Run, don’t amble, over to WNYC’s On the Media and listen to this week’s program, which is on the “Digital Dark Age” that may await us if we don’t come to terms with reliable means of saving and retrieving our digitally-stored data. Continue reading
Ding a ling a ling!
Ask not for whom the dinner bell tolls! I’m on a tight deadline to crank out an essay before the bell rings, so here are a few long reads to keep you busy while I’m out roping up some historiographical longhorns. I don’t know why, but all of these links seem to be about good actors struggling to cope with their mixed feelings about the bad behavior of others. Bookmark this post the next time someone tells you that “secular humanists” and “liberal relativists” refuse to deal with the problem of evil in the world, willya?
- Clemson Communications Professor Chenjerai Kumanyika writes at the NPR Code Switch blog about “The Cost of White Comfort,” and nails a sneaking suspicion I’ve had about the (mostly white) chorus of hosannas about the forgiveness shown by the families of the black victims of last week’s terrible massacre in Charleston: “I couldn’t shake a paralyzing feeling: When black people and white people clasped hands in the arena that night, the comfort wouldn’t be evenly distributed. The healing wouldn’t flow both ways.” White Americans just love it when we’re let off the hook, don’t we? We’re the kings and queens of the fantasy that history doesn’t matter.
- Writer Andrew Chee dishes on his time in the early 1990s working as a cater-waiter for William F. and Pat Buckley: “The tuxedo and the starched white shirt—and the fact that each assignment was at a different, often exclusive, place—all made me feel a little like James Bond. Sometimes my fellow waiters and I called it the Gay Peace Corps for how we could come into places, clean them up, make them fabulous, throw a party, and leave. And I liked that when I went home, I didn’t think about the work at all.” But would his recent past as an ACT-UP activist get him kicked out of the famously anti-gay Bill’s household? Or would it get him an invitation to skinny dip with Bill at the end of the evening? (Because “that’s how they used to swim at Yale, after all.”) Really! For you younger people, this essay really captures a slice of gay, urban life in the 1990s, before and just after the invention of protease inhibitors while rendered HIV a condition people could live with instead of just die from. I was an urban straight at the time, but Chee and I are the same age and his recollections really jibe with my memories of the time.
From “An Account of Quebec,” The Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions, and Politics, (London: Rudolph Ackermann, September 1809), 149-150.
Although Quebec is situated so far south as 46º 47′, two degrees to the southward of Paris, yet the climate approximates to that of St. Petersburg, in 60º north. It is upon record, that in a severe winter, many years ago, the mercury in Fahrenheit’s thermometer sunk to 39º below zero, where it froze. At the same time, a bomb-shell, filled with water and closely stopped, exploded as if charged with gunpowder. It is a disputed point, whether the climate has, or has not, gained a permanent degree of amelioration. The former is the public sentiment. One the first settlement of the English in the country [ca. 1759], it was an established custom, that no vessel should depart from the river after the first week in November: at present, however, they venture to take their departure so late as Christmas.
The first fall of snow generally occurs about the middle of October. This is followed by a thaw, and three weeks or a month of fine warm weather, which is called the Indian summer. There is then a heavy fall of snow, and the frost sets in hard about Christmas. From that time to the middle of March, the winter is unrelenting. From an average of ten years, the range of Fahrenheit’s thermometer, during the months of January, February, and March, was found to be from 12º to 28º.