Biography as Story Time

Two articles in The New Republic in the past year or two, one about Theodore Roosevelt and the other about John Adams, are also about the oversimplification of history. Wilentz says the Adams biography is too reverential and respectful, too much of a hagiography. Stansell says the Roosevelt is too incurious, too movie-like and you-are-there-ish, too long on detail and much too short on questions and analysis. Is this inevitable in writing popular biography and history? Does one absolutely have to choose between writing a book that’s fun and entertaining and not too difficult, and one that actually explores and interrogates the subject rather than merely telling a story about it? Is it entirely out of the question to present history in such a way that general readers can gain some understanding and some idea of the questions historians ask? I don’t see why it should be. There is a fine line between popularisation and dumbing down, but it’s unfortunate that people so often opt for the easier (and probably more lucrative) course rather than making the effort to write about ideas even in a popular book.

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