Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The End of History in the Penny Press?

Amidst the usual fine verbiage in Sunday's New York Times Book Review was a half-page piece on Laura Kalman's new history of the Carter and Ford administrations, Right Star Rising: A New Politics, 1974-1980 that caught my attention.

The essay in question is by David Frum. It's a negative review – he calls the book useless – but that in itself wouldn't ordinarily stick in my memory quite so strongly as this piece has. The NYTBR does, after all, occasionally run negative reviews (and contrary to what you might think, I totally understand – and agree with – their tacit decision that this be done only occasionally). The most it might usually do is elicit sympathy: I read Kalman's book and considered it inoffensive – not particularly virtuosic (certainly not worthy, for instance, of either soliciting a review for Open Letters Monthly or, gawd forbid, writing one myself), but interesting in patches … in other words, a good enough book so that a public pillorying in the world's most-watched review venue would make me cringe for the poor author.

To put it mildly, Frum felt differently, and that immediately set me on my guard: when another critic dislikes something I liked, there's an added edge that isn't really present when two non-critic readers disagree; it becomes like mountain-rams sizing each other up for a series of monumental head-butts. It became obvious to me after two sentences that Frum is both a good writer and a strong, deep thinker – and that just makes the head-butting urge all the stronger!

He begins by talking about the long transition-period between a world envisioned for others solely through the art of painting and a world in which there was such a thing as photography: “Suddenly, there was a better way of recording the physical appearance of things, and artists had to discover new purposes for brush and pigment.” This further raised my hackles, since it's a pretty bone-headed reduction of what all those brush-and-pigment works were doing before photography – all it takes is one glance at something by Fra Angelico or Frans Hals or Caspar Friedrich to know that 'recording the physical appearance of things' was pretty far down on their list of motives.

But even that early in the essay, he had my attention – and the next paragraph cemented that:
I kept thinking of those backward-looking artists [i.e. the ones who kept painting 'lifelike' portraits even after the advent of photography] all the way through Laura Kalman's “Right Star Rising.” As a work of history about the Ford and Carter years, there is nothing seriously wrong with it. The facts are accurate, the writing is clear and the point of view is not tendentious. Once upon a time, such a book might have been useful to somebody.

Then the kicker, the thing that's had me thinking about this essay ever since:
But the question it raises – and it's not a question about this book alone – is: What's the point of this kind of history in the age of the Internet? Suppose I'm an undergraduate who stumbles for the first time across the phrase “Proposition 13.” I could, if I were minded, walk over to the university library, pull this book from the shelf and flip to the index. Or I could save myself two hours and Google it. I wouldn't learn more from a Google search than I'd learn from these pages. But I wouldn't learn a whole lot less, either.

Frum then goes on to serially demolish the hypothetical utility of Right Star Rising, but by that point I had no worry to spare for poor Kalman – all my worry was focused on the future of history as a discipline.

Because Frum is right, and as far as I know, he's the first critic in a well-lit forum to raise so openly the specter of Google (and Wikipedia)'s affect on the writing of history: at the fingertips of virtually every literate person in the world is an assemblage of knowledge deeper and vaster than a thousand libraries of Alexandria, and all of it is capable of being summoned, sifted, cross-examined, verified, or exposed in the course of a well-spent hour. If you want to know the exact hour-by-hour movements of one particular brigade on the third day of the Battle of Gettsyburg, you no longer face an uphill struggle against recondite sources in the back-stacks of the Widener Library – the whole thing is available (with colored, moving graphics) at half a dozen places online, places constructed by experts and constantly checked and re-checked by experts. If you want to know the latest theories on the composition of the Lusiads, you no longer have to call for, scrutinize, and photocopy the one scholarly publication in the world that would publish such an article – you can simply, as Frum says, Google it.

The smaller point he's making – for which poor Kalman is the whipping-post – is that histories in the Age of the Internet can't rely anymore on simply relaying facts. This is true, but it's also pat: it's always been true. Even in the dimly-remembered days before the Internet (a collective shudder arises from the reading audience … and yet, such times existed, and men thrived, and women were beautiful), there were encyclopedias and almanacs specifically designed to spare Frum's eager-beaver undergraduate the necessity of reading Professor Dryasdust's 12-volume history of the East India Company. Even two hundred years ago, critics could decry a book as not so much bad as needless (which is not quite the same thing as Frum's “useless,” but close enough).

The Internet doesn't change the facts, but it does change the dynamic: once upon a time, the only way to dig deeper than what you got in an encyclopedia or an almanac was to tackle genuine histories, and when you did that, you were faced with a whole different calculus of effort and gain. You could still come across Professor Dryasdust, somebody who merely assembled fact upon fact and was accurate, clear, and not tendentious. But you could also come across the glories of Gibbon, Parkman, Prescott, Wedgwood, Syme, or Morison – glories based on those same facts but raised to utterly thrilling heights by the skill of the practitioner.

I think that's Frum's larger point, and I wonder if even he knows how large it is. It perfectly diagnoses the acute, unprecedented problem publishing historians face today: their audience is capable of summoning a kind of triage-expertise on any subject, and of doing so faster and more accurately than any audience before them in the history of the world. With an Internet connection and an open hour or two for intense reading, a person can deeply familiarize themselves with the Wars of the Roses or the Salem witch trials or the writings of Julian the Apostate from the comfort of their own bed, even if their personal library shelves are bare. So if you've got your heart set on writing history, who do you write for? What do you assume? How much of your fundamental duty – to tell the stories of the past – can you ethically leave to the anonymous hordes of Wikipedia?

Frum concludes that Kalman's book is “more or less useless,” but he's being a little bit tricky with his conclusions: the specific book he's chosen as the stalking-horse for his tirade is merely adequate on its subject. And it would have been merely adequate in 1988; the Internet's ready access doesn't worsen its defects. A more talented prose-stylist and perhaps a deeper thinker than Kalman could have written a book that mostly recounted those same Ford-Carter facts and was still well worth that undergraduate's two hours in the library.

That's how I'm choosing to see things, anyway: the massive answer-readiness of the Internet isn't a cry for the abolition of chronicles – it's a stone for their whetting.


Shelley said...

Wider and vaster, maybe, but not deeper? As someone whose writing is history-based, I think in the glut of easily reached data--some reliable, some not--we need even more the lens of a thoughtful author to connect the dots in some illuminating, or unseen, way.

Steve Donoghue said...

I agree completely! The glut makes the really good, really illuminating and challenging authors all the more vital (and I can't help but smile a little at the possibility that Frum's larger theses were sparked mainly because he caught a so-so book on a day when only a brilliant one would have done the trick). But even for vital authors, the question (Frum's Conundrum, we'll call it) remains: what is the proper relationship between even those authors and the glut? Historians - and especially scholarly article-writers - have been somewhat nervously avoiding the deeper implications of Google and Wikipedia for some years now, but Frum's central bullish question, what USE is this book?, puts them all under the microscope. I find it absolutely fascinating - either it will shatter the disciplines into a thousand little MTV theme-programs, or it will create the first wave of truly great historians of the next generation...

Ingrid Norton said...

Fascinating post, Steve. I think it's also an interesting time for news journalism for similar reasons: back in the day, if you followed city council, you picked up your city's newspaper to find out what they were up to. If you were in finance or banking, you read the Wall Street Journal or The American Banker every morning. On and on. Now, on the internet, the raw information of news is often available to the consuming public as quickly as it is to journalists.

That fundamentally changes the act of reporting in all kinds of ways journalistic establishments are still reeling from. As you say about history, I suspect it will simultaneously "shatter" news writing into a thousand pieces, where what grabs attention and echoes across the wide space of the internet gets covered in quick, hacked up bits so that the curious mind can quickly absorb it. But I also think it simultaneously creates an urgent need for people who are gifted synthesizers & generalists -- great thinkers and great writers -- who can weave larger patterns and implications from the din, beyond mere factual reporting and writing. I do foresee a renaissance in journalism and history for that very reason. And I don't think the two possibilities are exclusive, which is why it's such a strange, unstable -- and in many ways, increasingly bifurcated -- time....

See also historian Keith Thomas' recent "Diary" in the LRB. The essay -- about the process of synthesizing, deep research, and the associations and ideas that form from it -- raises interesting questions about how the internet's fact-finding process will change the practice of history itself.

thom said...

sure we have wikipedia and google for quick aesthetic answers, as topical surveys always have; but good history, in addition to answers will also raise new questions, providing an impetus for deeper inquiry that can only be satisfied by more profound studies.

GW said...

Frum reviews books on his website, too. Have a look:

steve donoghue said...

Hey! Those history reviews are actually quite good! AND he's damn prolific! Gulp ... are you all going to REPLACE me?

GW said...

Oooops, cat's out of the bag! But we do have a severance package to offer you. How about a copy of The Once and Future King?

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