Not All Ways of Recalling the Past Are Equal

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IN DEFENSE OF HISTORY By Richard J. Evans W.W. Norton 287 pp., $25.95

The title of this thoughtful book, "In Defense of History," is perhaps its least well-thought-out element. The book does not defend history. Rather, it defends the doing of history by certain scholars, while criticizing the way other scholars diverge from sound practice. A more accurate title would have been "In Praise of Certain Historians."

The criticism of the title is more than a quibble because the current version could turn off potential readers. That would be a shame. Richard J. Evans has written one of those rare books aimed at specialists (in this case, professional historians) that will fascinate generalists (in this case, anybody who reads history). The guts of Evans's accessible discourse is which philosophies and techniques of historians come closest to achieving truth about the past. That discourse has consequences. As Evans puts it so compellingly, "The problem of how historians approach the acquisition of knowledge about the past, and whether they can ever wholly succeed in this enterprise, can stand for the much bigger problem of how far society at large can ever attain the kind of objective certainty about the great issues of our time that can serve as a reliable basis for making vital decisions...." As an author with amateur historian status, I read hundreds of books and articles by disparate historians writing about the same topic. Rarely do those historians agree about the facts, much less the meaning. Some impose a pattern on their subject's life, while others do not. …