Chapter 16 – How to Read History (part 2 of 3)


Despite the fact that most histories are closer to fiction than to science, they can be read as expository works, and therefore they should be. Hence, we must ask the same questions of a historical book that we ask of any expository book. Because of the special nature of history, we must ask those questions a little differently and must expect to receive slightly different kinds of answers.

As far as the first question is concerned, every history has a particular and limited subject. … A history of the Civil War is not a history of the world in the nineteenth century. … Hence, if we are to read a history well, it is necessary to know precisely what it is about and what it is not about. Certainly, if we are to criticize it, we must know the latter. An author cannot be blamed for not doing what he did not try to do.

With regard to the second question, the historian tells a story, and that story, of course, occurred in time. Its general outlines are thus determined, and we do not have to search for them. But there is more than one way to tell a story, and we must know how the historian has chosen to tell his. Does he divide his work into chapters that correspond to years or decades or generations? … Does he discuss, in one chapter, the economic history of his period, and cover its wars and religious movements and literary productions in others? Which of these is most important to him? If we discover that, if we can say which aspect of the story he is telling seems to him most fundamental, we can understand him better.

Criticism of history takes two forms. We can judge – but only, as always, after we understand what is being said – that a historian’s work lacks verisimilitude. People just do not act that way, we may feel. … On the other hand, we may think, especially if we have some special knowledge of the subject, that the historian has misused his sources. … In that case, he cannot have written a good history of it. We expect a historian to be informed.

The first criticism is, however, more important. A good historian must combine the talents of the storyteller and the scientist. He must know what is likely to have happened as well as what some witnesses or writers said actually did happen.

With regard to the last question, What of it?, it is possible that no kind of literature has a greater effect on the actions of men than history. … History suggests the possible, for it describes things that have already been done. If they have been done, perhaps they can be done again – or perhaps they can be avoided.

The main answer to the question, What of it? Therefore, lies in the direction of practical, political action. For this reason it is of great importance that history be read well. Unfortunately, leaders have often acted with some knowledge of history but not enough. With the world as small and dangerous as it has become, it would be a good idea for all of us to start reading history better.


A biography is a narrative account of the life, the history, of a man or woman or of a group of people; thus, a biography poses many of the same problems as a history. The reader must ask the same sort of questions – what is the author’s purpose? What are his criteria of truth? – as well, of course, as asking the questions we must ask of any book.

There are several kinds of biographies. The definitive biography is intended to be the final, exhaustive, scholarly work on the life of someone important enough to deserve a definitive biography. Definitive biographies cannot be written about living persons. They are seldom written until several non-definitive biographies have first appeared, all of them often somewhat inadequate. All sources are gone through, all letters read, and a great deal of contemporary history examined by the author.

A definitive biography is a slice of history – the history of a man and of his times, as seen through his eyes. It should be read as history. An authorized biography is not the same thing at all. Such works are usually commissioned by the heirs or friends of some important person, and they are carefully written so that the errors the person made and the triumphs he achieved are seen in the best light possible. … Instead of reading it simply as history, the reader should understand that it may be biased – that this is the way the reader is expected to think of the book’s subject; this is the way his friends and associates want him to be known to the world.

There remain those biographies that are neither definitive nor authorized. Perhaps we may all them ordinary biographies. In such works, we expect the author to be accurate, to know his facts. We want above all to be given the feeling that we are viewing the life of a real person in another time and place. Human beings are curious, and especially curious about other human beings.

Autobiographies present some different and interesting problems. First of all, it is questionable whether anyone has ever written a true autobiography. If it is difficult to know the life of anyone else, it is even more difficult to know one’s own. And, of course, all autobiographies have to be written about lives that are not yet complete.

The temptation to tell either less or more than the truth (the latter may be more common), when there is no one to contradict you, is almost irresistible. Everybody has some secrets he cannot bear to divulge; everybody also has some illusions about himself, which it is almost impossible for him to regard as illusions.

Are there any additional hints for reading biographies and autobiographies? … Despite the fact that such books, and especially the autobiographies, reveal much about their authors, we should not spend so much time trying to discover a writer’s secrets that we do not find out what his says plainly. … You should remember, of course, that if you wish to know the truth about a person’s life, you should read as many biographies of him as you can find. Including his own account of his life, if he wrote one. Read biography as history and as the cause of history; take all autobiographies with a grain of salt; and never forget that you must not argue with a book until you fully understand what it is saying. As to the question, What of it?, we would only say this: biography, like history, can be a cause of practical, moral action. A biography can be inspiring.