Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

NBCC Good Reads 3 [The Long Tail] Brian Sholis Recommends….


NBCC member Brian Sholis’s pick for the NBCC Good Reads Spring 2008 list, recommendations by NBCC members, awards winners and finalists:

Gordon S. Wood, “The Purpose of the Past: On the Uses of History.”

The review-essays collected in Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Gordon S. Wood’s “The Purpose of the Past” chart a turbulent period in the discipline of academic history, during which an old guard defended comprehensive narrative history against younger generations influenced by postmodern theory, sociology, and cultural studies. (This is often distilled as a battle between history “from above” and “from below.”) Wood, a professor at Brown University whose specialty is the founding of our republic, is clearly on the side of tradition, but not with a knee-jerk reflexiveness: His advocacy is for temperance and the appreciation of historical context, rather than any individual position. Time and again, in pieces published during the last quarter-century in magazines such as The New York Review of Books and The New Republic, Wood chastises those who attempt to read the present into the past or vice versa. Though strict, he is also fair, and as he praises some historians (Drew Gilpin Faust, Garry Wills, David Hackett) and criticizes others (Simon Schama, Richard K. Matthews) his consistency grants lay readers fascinating insights not only into aspects of early America but also into how it is presented to us.—Brian Sholis