Monday, 1 December 2014

Why can't history be fun?

I've been meaning to read Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers, considered by many to be the definitive history of  the years leading to WWI. But every time I pick up my doorstop volume I soon put it down again. Yes it's well written, yes it's impeccably researched, but frankly it strikes me as dull. It suffers from the same problem a lot of historical writing does --too much attention to detail and the minutiae of political wrangling and not enough to much else. There is no storytelling here to engage me, no sense of the world beyond the corridors of government.

My feelings have probably been coloured by another history book I read recently, the improbably titled Hhhh, by French writer Laurent Binet. It is a fantastic book telling the story of the assasination attempt on Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942. It is non fiction written as a novel, with the thorny issue of how do you write about the past without making stuff up, at its heart. It is a fantastic, compelling read, full of humour and infused unashamedly with the author's own voice. Best of all, it tells the fascinating, true story of Operation Anthropoid, when two Czechoslovakian resistance fighters were parachuted into Prague to assassinate Heydrich, aka "The Butcher of Prague". It opened up a piece of the past I knew nothing about while offering a meditation on the nature of historical writing itself. It's greatest success is in creating a big story out of an obscure tale, obscure only in the context of the madness of the big, overarching story of WWII. It highlighted for me how many more similar WWII stories are out there, slowly fading into oblivion.

I love history, it is the story of everything, and it's exciting to see it being presented and talked about in new ways. Which brings me naturally to Horrible Histories, the books (and tv series) that made history interesting to a generation of British schoolchildren. Its author, Terry Deary, found history in school boring (like I did, and like my 13 year old daughter still does) and vowed to save future generations from a similar fate. It too brings out the tiny stories of the past --in this case usually related to rudeness and bodily functions-- to engage children and bring history to life. It helps them understand that the past is a fascinating place and completely relevant to their lives. And it's fun!

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