A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Barbara Tuchman is my favorite historian and I was sorry when she herself passed into history in 1989. Thankfully, she left a good-sized body of work and I have read most of her books. While she is best known for focusing on WW1, she also wrote about other topics, such as a splendid overview of how European society changed as a result of the plague in the 1300’s (A Distant Mirror).
Practising History is a collection of shorter writings, from magazine articles to commencement speeches and scholarly addresses over a span of decades from the 1930’s to the ‘70’s. The latter includes op-ed pieces on her opposition to the Vietnam War and have a real sense of immediacy all these years later.
The book is divided into sections loosely based upon topics. The first section is about the technical aspects of writing about history and is certainly not as dry as my description. In fact, some of the anecdotes about her research resemble a detective on the trail and shows how difficult it is to find supporting documents, even when it’s a recent event. Another section is about specific personalities or incidents, some of which were still unfolding as she wrote. Of special note to this site, there are two book reviews, including an analytical biography of President Wilson, mostly penned by Sigmund Freud, which she rips to shreds in a wonderfully snarky way. There’s also a few places where she poses “what if” questions, which are always fun to ponder. One is about how different things might’ve played out had Theodore Roosevelt been president during WW1. Since that war is her specialty, I’m always attentive to her explanations for various aspects of it, especially since I consider that one of the most pointless wars in history, seeming to do nothing but set the stage for the following world war.
Running counter to most of the other themes in her work is an essay titled “Mankind’s Better Moments” about the positive things humans have done over time. For instance, she counts individual accomplishments of say, Bach or DaVinci, but also larger group efforts as the Gothic cathedrals of Europe and the reclamation of land from the sea to build Zuider Zee in the Netherlands. It’s reassuring to be reminded that humankind is capable of beauty amid all the destruction.
Practising History can be read as an introduction for someone new to Tuchman’s work or as an adjunct to her longer books. Or as a springboard to read other authors on some of the topics she raises. In any case, her books hold an honored spot on my shelves.
Ballantine Books 1982 306 pp. ISBN 0-345-30363-6