The best books that show history is not just a record of facts but something made and crafted by historians

Eileen Ka-May Cheng Author Of Historiography: An Introductory Guide
By Eileen Ka-May Cheng

Who am I?

I am a professor of history at Sarah Lawrence College and the author of The Plain and Noble Garb of Truth: Nationalism and Impartiality in American Historical Writing, 1784-1860. What has always fascinated me about history is how differently it can be interpreted by different people, even when looking at the exact same subject. While I write and teach on a variety of topics, ranging from the American Revolution to historiography, all of my courses and research deal in some way with the conflicts over how to represent the past that have divided both historians and the general public throughout the long history of history as a subject. 


I wrote...

Historiography: An Introductory Guide

By Eileen Ka-May Cheng,

Book cover of Historiography: An Introductory Guide

What is my book about?

"What is historiography?" asked the American historian Carl Becker in 1938. Professional historians continue to argue over the meaning of the term. This book challenges the view of historiography as an esoteric subject by presenting an accessible and concise overview of the history of historical writing from the Renaissance to the present. Historiography plays an integral role in aiding undergraduate students to better understand the nature and purpose of historical analysis more generally by examining the many conflicting ways that historians have defined and approached history. By demonstrating how these historians have differed in both their interpretations of specific historical events and their definitions of history itself, this book conveys to students the interpretive character of history as a discipline.

The books I picked & why

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History as Romantic Art: Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman

By David Levin,

Book cover of History as Romantic Art: Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman

Why this book?

An old book, but still one of the best accounts of 19th-century American historical writing, showing how Romantic historians like William Prescott and Francis Parkman viewed history as a literary art. As Levin elegantly and lucidly demonstrates, these historians did not view themselves as mere chroniclers of fact but considered themselves artists whose purpose was to bring the past to life through the use of their own imagination. This was one of the first works of historiography that I read, and it is still a model to me of how to approach the subject.

History as Romantic Art: Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman

By David Levin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked History as Romantic Art as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Style in History

By Peter Gay,

Book cover of Style in History

Why this book?

This masterful examination of the style of 4 classic historians – Gibbon, Ranke, Macaulay, and Burckhardt – shows how style was not just a matter of form for these historians but an expression of who they were and the world in which they lived. At the same time, as Gay emphasizes, style was also a tool these historians used to illuminate their subject, making it much more than simply a reflection of their time. Beautifully written, the book demonstrates that Gay was as much a master of style as the historians he discusses.

Style in History

By Peter Gay,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Style in History as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What does an historian's style reveal? In this original and lucid guide to the proper reading of Gibbon, Ranke, Macaulay, and Burckhardt-great historians who were also great stylists-Peter Gay demonstrates that, style is an invaluable clue to the historian's insight. Thus, for Peter Gay, style is the key to culture, and the "truth" of history-as it helps to define that culture-can only be fully understood through an objective and thorough analysis of all its elements.


The Footnote: A Curious History

By Anthony Grafton,

Book cover of The Footnote: A Curious History

Why this book?

Grafton shows how something we often take for granted as part of scholarly history writing – the footnote – itself has a history. There is no historian today who is better at making the history of erudition accessible and engaging to general readers, and The Footnote is a case in point. Wittily and elegantly written, Grafton’s book turns what might seem to be an esoteric topic – the story of how footnotes came to be a sine qua non of historical scholarship – into the story of how historians dealt with their uncertainties about the foundations for historical knowledge and truth.

The Footnote: A Curious History

By Anthony Grafton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Footnote as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The weapon of pedants, the scourge of undergraduates, the bete noire of the "new" liberated scholar: the lowly footnote, long the refuge of the minor and the marginal, emerges in this book as a singular resource, with a surprising history that says volumes about the evolution of modern scholarship. In Anthony Grafton's engrossing account, footnotes to history give way to footnotes as history, recounting in their subtle way the curious story of the progress of knowledge in written form. Grafton treats the development of the footnote-the one form of proof normally supplied by historians in support of their assertions-as writers…


Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

By Jill Lepore,

Book cover of Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

Why this book?

Ostensibly an account of the life of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister, Jane Franklin, Lepore’s book is also a meditation on the construction of history, exploring the question of why some stories get told and others don’t. Why is Benjamin Franklin now a household name, when most people don’t even know that he even had a sister? If you want to know the answer to this question, read Lepore’s book.

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin

By Jill Lepore,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Book of Ages as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST

ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR
NPR • Time Magazine • The Washington Post • Entertainment Weekly • The Boston Globe

A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK

From one of our most accomplished and widely admired historians—a revelatory portrait of Benjamin Franklin's youngest sister, Jane, whose obscurity and poverty were matched only by her brother’s fame and wealth but who, like him, was a passionate reader, a gifted writer, and an astonishingly shrewd political commentator.

Making use of an astonishing cache of little-studied material, including documents, objects, and portraits only just discovered, Jill Lepore…


Not By Fact Alone: Essays on the Writing and Reading of History

By John Clive,

Book cover of Not By Fact Alone: Essays on the Writing and Reading of History

Why this book?

A collection of essays about “classic” works of history by (mostly) European historians ranging from Edward Gibbon to Jacob Burckhardt, Clive’s book brings these works to life even for readers unfamiliar with them. Clive’s short but rich essays on these historians provide a wonderful introduction to both their writings and to the study of historiography more generally, showing the value of these classic texts as works of literature and as gateways into the worlds of their authors.

Not By Fact Alone: Essays on the Writing and Reading of History

By John Clive,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Not By Fact Alone as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this collection of essays, the author demonstrates that while reading the great historians of the past, such as Gibbon, de Tocqueville, Carlyle, Macaulay, Michelet, Halevy, Marx and Burckhardt, is part of a complete education, history can also be great literature.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in historiography, Boston, and Massachusetts?

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