Why Are Popular History Books Popular?

WhyWhat makes popular history books “popular?”

Over the last few months, I have read several popular history books for Ben Franklin’s World.

I read these books with the same care and thought I give to scholarly work. I also read them with an eye toward trying to figure out why they are “popular.”

Why do history lovers choose these books over scholarly ones, which often contain better evidence, information, and analysis?

In this post, I offer observations about the popularity of popular history books.

 

Popular History Books Feature People

Many historians argue that popular history books are popular because they tackle a founding father or famous person.

A casual glance at the bookshelves or best-seller tables at Barnes and Noble supports this idea.

With that said, I am not convinced that famous people make popular history books popular.

Listeners of Ben Franklin’s World love learning about the founders and famous people, but do you know what they love learning about even more?

The lives of everyday people.

Each week, I receive e-mails with requests that I present more episodes about how non-famous, non-elite men and women lived.

You know who tackles this topic best and writes about it the most?

Academic historians.

If readers want to read about everyday men and women, why are popular history books popular?

They are popular because they feature people readers can follow and live through vicariously. I suspect that many history lovers settle for books about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they can’t find books about people like Martha Ballard or George Robert Twelves Hewes.

The feedback my listeners provide strongly suggests that they would love to read books about men or women who lived average lives; books that allowed them to witness the past through the eyes of someone like them.

 

Amazon Bestselling History Books Jan 2016

Screenshot of Amazon.com homepage for U.S. History books, taken January 14, 2016

 

Popular History Books Use Plain, Evocative Language

Language has the power to evoke ideas, images, and emotions. The writers of popular history books embrace language. They use words and idioms that enliven or humanize the people and events they write about.

I love scholarly history books, but comparatively the language within them is flat. Many scholars focus more on the point they are trying to make rather than on how they express their point. Popular history writers pay more attention to expression.

Popular history writers also use plain language, short sentences, and idioms.

You won’t find the “technical or specialized parlance of a specific social or occupational group” in a popular history book. You also won’t find copious citations or in-text references to other historians’ books.*

Popular history writers write like they talk.

Scholarly writers often write like distant narrators who use big words and complex sentences.

 

Popular History Books Make Judgement Calls

Writers of popular history books pass judgement. Historians mince words.

Often, scholarly authors use language that both implies judgement and offers them plausible deniability for such thoughts.

For example, a popular history author writes “Benjamin Franklin was a womanizer.” An author of a scholarly work pens “Benjamin Franklin seemed to have an affinity for women given all of the flirtatious language in his surviving correspondence.”

Readers view authors as subject experts. They want to know the writer’s opinion on the topic or person at hand. A preference at odds with scholars’ training.

 

Conclusions

I offer the above as observations on the patterns I see.

I freely admit that while reading some popular history books my eyes have rolled and audible, exasperated sighs have passed through my lips.

I think popular history writers are on to something with people and the use of plain, evocative language.

If writers of scholarly history books took these techniques and applied them to their studies of everyday men and women, I believe we could see a resurgence of scholarly historical research on bestseller lists and on the bookshelves of non-university bookstores.

 

*Encyclopedia Britannica, “jargon.”

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  • little_tigress

    For me, it is definitely about your point #2 – the language. When I sit down to read, I want the reading experience to flow smoothly and take me from beat to beat without feeling like I’m getting stuck. I could probably enjoy scholarly writings if I gave them an honest chance, but I think I am a bit intimidated by them. The popular books feel more “approachable” in a sense. Perhaps I will eventually “graduate” into reading more scholarly pieces after getting comfortable with the subject through popular books?

    • lizcovart

      Thank you for adding your thoughts. This is an interesting topic to think about.

      Professional historians need to do a better job of communicating. I don’t think historians are bad writers, but many need to put more thought into how they write their books and articles. They need to think about audience more. Popular history books are great for generating interest, but I do find that many of them are a bit thin on evidence. Also, some popular history writers write worse than many professional historians. How their books sell better than others is beyond me.

  • historiann

    Liz, I really like your point about popular writers writing with spoken language. We professional historians all do this anyway (or at least we should) when writing lecture notes and conference papers, for example. Reading academic writing out loud exposes its frequently convoluted and contorted sentences.

    I completely agree with your other point about the messy details of life in other eras. Professional historians are trained to focus on what the field has defined as “big themes,” like nationalism, the state, modernity, etc. I’ve gambled on the details of everyday life in the 18th C in my forthcoming book, hoping that non-historians will be fascinated and intrigued by some of these details: What was for dinner, and who prepared it? How did families share space in a household? How did women cope with menstruation in three different cultures?

    • lizcovart

      As you know, I am excited for your book. Congratulations!

      Admittedly, the above represent observations, not hard facts or statistics from surveys. I suspect if historians considered their audience books would be better. Of course, I wonder how many of our peers would choose to write for history lovers. in some ways writing for an academic audience is less work than writing for a lay audience. You really have to explain what you mean when you write for people who are not historians. You can’t rely on jargon shorthand.

  • Don Glickstein

    I don’t think it’s the topic—everyday people—so much as it’s written in plain English (as you say, including active verbs), and, most important, it tells stories. That being said, I’m always struck by how many popular history books are filled with syrupy adjectives, adverbs, and actions that are not only speculative (e.g. “Ben Franklin raised his eyebrows in worry…”) but take away from the power of the narrative and direct quotes.

    • lizcovart

      I agree, Don. There are some popular history books that I cannot finish reading because they are just not written well. I like action verbs, varied sentence length, and information that both tells a story and gets to the point.

  • Paul Clammer

    It’s not just a question of language – important as that is – but structure as well. At the risk of generalising, popular history books tend to lean towards narrative while academic history books lean more towards forwarding an argument. They can be full of the well-sourced information and carefully considered theories but they can also be masters at burying the lede. I think that’s a result of writing for different audiences. An academic author is more often than not writing primarily for their peers; an author writing a popular history wants to sell their book to as wide (and non-specialist) a readership as possible.

    • lizcovart

      Audience is really important and we all must consider who we are writing for. Thank you for sharing your insights Paul. They help expand this discussion.

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