An excerpt of a new book appearedin Salon this week, provocatively titled “Why Most Narrative History is Wrong. The book is similarly provocative, alleging in the subtitle to reveal “the neuroscience of our addiction to stories.” Naturally this caused a series of knee-jerk reactions that spawned long Twitter threads. I had a similarly impulsive response to the chapter, but also wanted to response to it in good faith before returning to a point the author and I actually agree on, that narratives—the stories we tell ourselves—are fundamental to human societies, because my distaste with this piece emerges from the consequences of this point.
In a review of a new book, Carthage Must Die,Christopher Hart was generally hostile. I have not read this book, but the sense of the review was that this is a new history of the Roman-Punic conflicts from the Carthaginian angle. In the strictest sense, the criticism is that this is (I can only assume) an academic book and that historiography gets in the way of history.
Frankly I have multiple issues with this review, but the biggest one is this: especially for ancient history the historiography is an essential component to scholarship and history. So much of what we have to work with must be interpreted as something other than history that using the sources is as much dismissing them as accepting them. Historical narratives make for nice reading, but generally speaking they have already been done. Further, this book addresses a topic from the point of view of a civilization that was wiped off the map–literally. To say that being source critical and historiographically novel takes away from the book suggests that he just missed the point. Of course it would be a harder read.
Let me be clear: I have not read the book in question, and for all I know there may be serious issues with it, but my gut instinct is that it was an academic book read by a pop reviewer. As it is I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt to this author for the approach, if for nothing else. Unless you are just telling stories, how the historian handles the texts is what sets people apart and that can only be judged if it is included in the text.