Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Feed him to Erato!

Poor Bill Bryson will have to suffer my wrath, because he happens to be the most recent popular historian whose work I have read (showing here).

I’ve heard that an English [academic] historian says that he doesn’t use footnotes because, iakoby [allegedly] the only reason to keep footnotes is so distrustful readers can fact-check. “Either you believe me,” (I am quoting reported speech), “or you don’t. The footnotes won’t change that.”

I must disagree. Footnotes are just as much important for the very purpose of building a community of scholarship, for participating in the discipline that falls under Clio’s ancient tutelage. The purpose is to write a descriptive text, not a Bible (that is, we must allow the possibility that future scholarship will make any research null and void).

Popular history – inasmuch as it is popular history – falls outside the realm of the discipline. That Bryson doesn’t include footnotes throughout Shakespeare, then, doesn’t make me blink an eye. He’s trying to tell a story, and he doesn’t trust his reading public to tolerate a text that has footnotes or endnotes or explanations or, heaven forbid, an extensive bibliography. (I wouldn’t trust the general reading public either. People are stupid.)

I turn to the footnotes/citations immediately because as soon as we take them away, we lose any possibility of being part of the historic discipline. Any possibility. The text becomes a story, and only a story, and we have to be okay with that. Non-fiction is an umbrella genre that includes far more than history.

That separation means that we shouldn’t think of popular history versus disciplinary history in the way they’re phrased, as two flavors of one generic HISTORY. They are apples and oranges in ink-on-paper form.

I’m not prejudicially opposed to popular [hi]stories. I like fictions. I like tales. I like to see what a crafty individual thinks might tickle our collective fancies, or learn about some event I don’t care to experience in the full “orange” depths of disciplinary history. I read Wikipedia entries on all sorts of things. (Like the Taman Shud case. Gah! So exciting!)

Where Bryson incurs my wrath is not in his storytelling but in the metacommentary that fuels and supplements his description of every event. He quotes figures of how many sources one might find by searching “Shakespeare” as title or subject in various databases not to speak to the poet’s supreme place in the Canon of Phenomenological Objects, but to laugh at the [iakoby] lengths to which academics have taken their research. His final comment on Shakespeare’s birthday is to brand it “rather academic” not just because of scanty records, but also because of the nebulous transition between Julian and Gregorian calendars. “Academic,” in this sense, means “stupid,” “ridiculous,” “unimportant.” At any point where he references the historiography of an event (I use the term “referencing” loosely, here, of course, as there ought not to be anything resembling citations or quotations in a “good” popular [hi]story), Bryson posits his opinion with a lead-off clause of metadiscourse or two: “of course,” “[almost] certainly,” “it should be readily apparent,” or my least favorite, “as should be obvious.”

If an event or explanation should be obvious, why state it, let alone surround it with rhetoric emphasizing that same blatancy? The thrust of Bryson’s work is two-fold: “This is how little we can know about Shakespeare, the person,” (a statement he paraphrases almost every paragraph), and “These are all of the misguided attempts those academic [with the above connotations employed] historians have perpetrated, failing to recognize this one true path that I will herein describe.”

If only I didn’t have this book on loan, I’d do to it what I did to the advanced-reader’s copy of Atwood’s Year of the Flood I read, and correct all of the proofing mistakes. Or, more precisely, like I did to my copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - tear out the epilogue and pretend it never existed. Except in this case I’d do much heavier editing, and skim over the black lines of censored text, and enjoy the scanty text, but nice story, that remains.


Miriam said...

Actually, it was donated to us by a couple of teachers who buggered off to Vietnam...I'm sure they won't come back to Russia demanded their books, so feel free to scribble in the margins. I suspect it'll be a more amusing read that way.

Our book donors were also lacklustre in praise of the text. Perhaps a bit understated in comparison to your good self ;)

Justin said...

But how else would we know who everyone ends up marrying and settling down to have kids with in a perfectly ordinary way? Hmmm? Hmmm?

Andrew said...

But that's the rub...I'm fine with the general idea of popular history - it definitely has its place in the world. And Bryson has an infectious way of storytelling, minus the editorial concerns I mentioned...

I just don't understand why a journalist has to take pot-shots at academia. It's like kicking a pigeon that can't fly away. (I'm looking at you, Snooze.)