The Need For Narrative History

I like to read.  I read all sorts of things.  I love reading Christian fiction books, theology type books, history books (duh), and of course my favorite types of books, SciFi.  When I read history books, my favorite are ones that have deep analysis but also craft a masterful story — authors like Edmund Morgan and Robert Remini stand out to me as two of the greats in this regard.

Earlier today, I was sitting on a chair in the living room after finishing an interesting book, Mudhouse Sabbath, about a Christian convert who used to be Jewish, and discussing some of the rituals and their spiritual value.  It was a deep book that helped me consider a lot of cultural practices.  After finishing that book (only 142 pages), I then picked up a book on the “state” bodies of the Crusades.  I bought the book in the Spring of my junior year when I was writing a paper on the economic history of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, and thought that I would read through the entirety of the book. . . And I could not even make it through the first chapter.  Sure the book was full of intellectual thoughts — things that usually I appreciate.  But sometimes, as a reader I just want a book on history that crafts the story for me, where I can just be a passenger as a historian guides me through their interpretation of the past.

Narrative history has its place in our discipline.  Often times, narrative historians are thrown to the side as only glorified storytellers.  However, they deserve more credit than that.  They find a way to take the dense information that we read through and help set up a frame of how the events likely unfolded and make is appealing to people from all walks of life.  When friends, relatives, coworkers, and others tell me the history books they read, often times they are by narrative historians.  Though they are not always following the five C’s (thanks Sam Wineburg) or adhering to a historicist mindset, they interpret the past in a way unique and fun.  Where we as historians often love the nuances of the past let’s be honest here, most people just want to believe that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and Abe Lincoln never told a lie.  Narrative historians have this inherent ability to make the vast complexities of history simplified (though sometimes over simplified) and understandable for everyone.

Often times I think of narrative history kind of like the greeters you meet at church.  When you walk in, there are incredibly nice people who say hello, ask your name, and give you a bulletin.  Then as you sit in your chair/pew/bench/etc. and service starts you begin to dive into the meet and potatoes.  Narrative history greets you and prepares you to dive into the vast landscape of history.

I find narrative history vastly important — though I know my classmates at Messiah may disagree with me.  They help develop history and draw people in.  It is a friendly face, a gentle soul, a bulletin into the intricacies of a whole new world.

-Phil

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Christian, Lover of History, Aspiring Teacher

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