History Books of the Year: The View from waterstone's.(Critical Essay)

By Higgs, Martin | History Today, November 2002 | Go to article overview

History Books of the Year: The View from waterstone's.(Critical Essay)


Higgs, Martin, History Today


SOME BOOKS OR AUTHORS COME TO DOMINATE SALES in a genre so completely that a lasting change results. Anthony Beevor is close to achieving this now. His book Berlin: The Downfall 1945 has sold more than twice the number of any other history book this year so far at Waterstone's. And six months after publication of Berlin, Waterstone's is regularly responsible for two-thirds of the total sales of the book--perhaps a reflection of the fact that we are serious about selling history books and some of our competitors are less so.

Berlin is the only hardback in Waterstone's history best-seller list--proof that, for those authors who have, over time, built up a reputation for achieving the combination of readability, human drama and scholarship, there are considerable rewards to be reaped from writing history. Two of Beevor's past books--Stalingrad and The Spanish Civil War--also feature in the year's top 20 sellers so far.

Beevor's competitors in our history book charts are themselves reliable heavy-weights of the popular history genre--Antonia Fraser, Alison Weir and Peter Ackroyd, for instance--but his current level of sales is extraordinary.

Beevor has, in sales terms, several things going for him beyond his own skills as a writer and scholar. He writes on a period--the Second World War--around which there is still vast public appetite. The awfulness of the characters of Hitler and Stalin still requires explanation; the atrocities committed by their armies and regimes are echoed in the current era--in Rwanda, Bosnia or Kosovo. In its bleak cruelty, the Second World War will remain forever as an exemplar, and maintain its terrible fascination and popularity as a subject for books. Certainly that public fascination shows no signs of dissipating, particularly as the generations of those who lived through the war are still very much alive and kicking.

Other books in our year's top ten so far reflect that theme: the books by Roy Jenkins, Stephen Ambrose and Hugh Montefiore have all been enormously successful, as has Michael Burleigh's superb Third Reich.

Beevor's other point of contact with the reading public is in his success in mixing the military with the social, the political with the human. The individual stories of citizens of Berlin or Stalingrad, as their lives crashed around them, are given as much weight as a battlefield tactic, a political decision or international conference. Instead of choosing a wide theme and interpreting it with minimal depth, he has chosen a specific historical event and delved deeply.

Perhaps the last book to achieve both Beevor's level of sales success and critical approval was Simon Schama's French Revolution epic Citizens--which had the added benefit of publication in 1989, the bicentenary of the events described. No writer will seriously attempt to compete against either Schama or Beevor in interpreting these issues in the next generation. It is easier said than done to write such a success.

Schama brings us to another clear theme among successful history titles--a TV link. David Starkey and Schama himself have almost cornered the market in terms of bringing history alive through our television, though Niall Ferguson will enter the fray shortly after Christmas with his book and series on the British Empire. …

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