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REVIEW

Is History Fiction?
Ann Curthoys & John Docker
331pp. UNSW Press, Sydney, 2010

Available from HTANSW:
Standard price $39.00 + postage (GST inclusive).
HTA NSW member price $30.00 + postage (GST inclusive)

The first edition of this book was reviewed in an earlier issue of Teaching History, where it was highly recommended as an Extension History reference. (See below for a copy of that review) The second edition is largely unchanged but for the significant addition of a new chapter, ‘Is a History of Humanity Possible?’.

The new chapter notes the divisiveness of postmodernism in the 1980s and 1990s and the various history wars in the 1990s and 2000s and then suggests that one of the more recent trends has been a shift to ‘supra-national’ or grand scale histories: world, global, ‘Big’ and environmental history. While the authors acknowledge earlier precedents, they also point out that this history is a product of the time in which it has been written. Humanity is ‘at a crossroads’ – there is great concern about the environment, there has been a loss of faith in the western progress narrative and there is a search for a global perspective.

The authors acknowledge that we will still need national histories, that bigger histories cannot escape being positioned and that the bigger the history the more the historian is reliant upon the secondary works of others. Nevertheless, they present a compelling case for the validity of histories that are not obsessively focused on the primary documents associated with a small aspect of the past. They also present the view of Janet Abu-Lughod that such histories will be better if written by those who are ‘inspired by eccentricity, ideology and idiosyncrasy’.

As with the rest of the book, the new chapter is dense, in the best sense, with summary and insight. It surveys the work of numerous historians, has lots of great quotes and provides a broad framework for understanding some of the more recent trends in historiography. Once again, this book is very highly recommended as a reference for anyone teaching Extension History.

Paul Kiem, HTANSW

 

FIRST EDITION REVIEW:

The title of this book immediately appealed to me because it is generally the first question I pose when we start Extension History classes. Like the authors, I believe that it is a question that well and truly predates any challenge to traditional history from postmodernism. Indeed, as this book demonstrates, it is a question on which the entire historiography component of the Extension course can turn. Not surprisingly, the authors organise their discussion under chapter headings that will sound like a familiar chronology to experienced Extension teachers – we start with Herodotus and move to the History Wars via Thucydides, Ranke etc.

However, the approach is fresh and up to date, the writing is engaging and, in pursuing a detailed response to the question posed in the title, the authors present many stimulating insights. Herodotus, it would appear, was not only the father of history but an ancient postmodernist. Women were not so much absent from history writing until recent times but confined to work in historical genres that have gained more credibility with the challenge to academic/scientific history. On the result of the Evans-Irving trial, which I like to present to students as a triumph for truth and traditional history, there is the observation: ‘A legal decision, after all, resolves a dispute as best it can; it is not necessarily a guarantee of truth’. Not that this is meant to provide any comfort for David Irving. Far from it, the Holocaust was a real event that did occur. But, it is an event that might benefit from being freed from the constraints of narrative history and re-examined with a postmodernist (Herodotean?) approach!

I began this book with a highlighter, hoping to pick up some ideas for Extension classes. Much of it is now coloured in. I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone who is teaching or planning to teach Extension history. It provides both a wonderful overview, from an interesting perspective, and a detailed reference. While I would not suggest that it is always accessible reading for average secondary students, our best students should expect to find it in their school libraries.

Paul Kiem, HTANSW

 

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