Jill Lepore and Publishing “Big” History

Many of the historians on Twitter have been dunking on Jill Lepore’s interview in the Chronicle of Higher Education since it was published. I posted a thread on Twitter about this earlier and decided to post it here, too. Twitter is so ephemeral, and this is something I’d like to think more about.

Working outside of the university, I’m not as ready to jump on the Bash Jill Lepore bandwagon as many #twitterstorians seem to be. Can we get past the Twitter hot take and engage her interview on its own terms?

Everyone’s arguments about historians engaging the public sphere through op-eds and teaching are valid, but they seem to ignore the context of the interview, which is mostly about publishing. In this context, Lepore is right. “Big” history books, the kind of Hofstadter syntheses Lepore is talking about, don’t have the cachet they once did. I think this is a good thing for scholars, but probably bad for civic culture.

It’s good for scholars because it means we’ve truly eschewed the sort of grand narratives that were en vogue at midcentury in favor of the complexity and ambiguity that followed from the late-sixties critiques aimed at this vogue. It’s probably bad for civic culture, though, for all of the reasons that Lepore mentions–especially the decline of the “fact.” When everything is too complex to sum up with a simple answer, like a math problem or popular science anecdote, it’s much harder to convince people to pay attention to the answer. What many readers seem to hear is that truth is relative to the observer, which doesn’t align with anyone’s moral compass. I think what readers often encounter, too, is a thicket of academic platitudes–like “the ways in which” or “to be sure.”

I think Professor Lepore is right on the money, therefore, to argue that scholars need to introduce complexity to the public with style. Thankfully, many are doing that in the past few years. The number of trade books I see on the general history shelves at Barnes & Noble penned by academic historians is growing. And it is exciting! Moving away somewhat from Lepore’s interview and down to the ground level here in flyover country, I think a bigger challenge faces all of us: how do we get these books on the shelf at Walmart or Target or the drug store?

Moving away somewhat from Lepore’s interview and down to the ground level here in flyover country, I think a bigger challenge faces all of us: how do we get these books on the shelf at Walmart or Target or the drug store? This is where they are most needed, because this is where the majority of intelligent but casual readers browse books. These are people, I believe, who are hungry for serious scholarship and complexity if the read is worth their time. Publishers and scholars should be reaching out past the booksellers to the big boxes serving the places without Barnes & Noble. Perhaps this will help restore historians to the town square.

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