What We’re Reading

–Contributed by Wes Smith, Nonfiction Editor

As Nonfiction Editor, I try to read as broadly as I can. By engaging in as many of the multitudinous sub-genres of what we call “nonfiction” as possible (manifestoes, memoirs, philosophical tomes, ten-second essays), I hope to better identify and evaluate what’s being written right now.

I recently finished The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (2002) by John Lewis Gaddis, a professor of military and Naval history at Yale. This book discusses why historical consciousness matters today. Gaddis explains that this is actually a more sophisticated process than historians realize, yet it does not take highly technical terms to explain. This book’s central metaphor is that historians work like cartographers, representing in print what they cannot replicate.

Gaddis cites one useful example of how historians operate in chapter six, which he titles “Causation, Contingency, and Counterfactuals.” Gaddis states: “Although historical narratives normally move forward, historians in preparing for them move backward.” By this he means that historians start with a particular event and then work recede from it in order to gain perspective, learn everything about that event including the underlying causes that affect those people involved, those who actually lived this history.

Gaddis’s book is an excellent read for anyone who likes history, wants to be a historian, or just wants to know how we study history. Even if none of these apply to you, there are still enough interesting points in the book to hold any nonfiction reader’s attention.

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