The opening-night plenary of this month’s American Historical Association conference focused, as such sessions often do, on how professional historians can bring their work to a wider audience. Titled “The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age” and chaired by AHA President William Cronon, the session featured food writer Michael Pollan, who urged historians to turn to more journalistic storytelling techniques. “Why,” he asked, “do people like me who use your work end up selling more books than you do?”
Mr. Pollan, a journalism professor and author of best sellers like The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, pointed out that works of history often end up on best-seller lists. But much of the time those best sellers are not written by professional historians. And when it comes to important questions about how things came to be the way they are, he said, historians have ceded territory to other disciplines, like behavioral economics and social psychology… Write in a human voice, he encouraged. Embrace storytelling techniques like scene-setting, suspense, and personification. Pose questions of current interest, and answer them. “We need that now as a society more than ever before,” he said. “We live in this fog of presentness. Every politician would have us forget what they said yesterday.”
Now, it’s not as if legions of historians are intentionally denying us page-turners. The structural dictates of academic writing don’t always lend themselves to gripping narrative, and we shouldn’t imagine that what someone like Pollan does isn’t a distinct skill of its own. Even still, says the NYT, Pollan’s challenge struck a chord.
Of course, it’s not just best-selling books that are built on the work of professional historians; Hollywood films, too, can sport lengthy bibliographies full of academic history. Spielberg’s Lincoln, with its attendant debates, is but the most recent example. And, in fact, last week The New Republic’s Timothy Noah offered a list of the books upon which Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner says he most relied. Though Noah is oddly skeptical of Kushner’s professed collection, it’s a great bunch of books. Many of them come from university presses, and even a couple from us.
Cronon, whose essay “The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age” ran in the January 2012 issue of Perspectives on History, titled his presidential address “Storytelling.” “We need to remember the roots of our discipline,” he said, “and be sure to keep telling stories that matter as much to our students and to the public as they do to ourselves.” You can watch the full address below.