So what makes a history book popular? There are surely many factors, but here are four that I think are especially key. The first is the perceived importance of the topic. Books on WWII, for example, will sell more copies than studies of, say, the economic effects of agricultural tenancy in Tennessee during Reconstruction. (I know this from experience, having written a book on the latter topic in an earlier life. Bless my mother’s heart for reading it.)
The second factor is the book’s literary quality: the drama of the story and the skill of the storyteller. Thinking of this factor always brings to mind the late Bruce Catton. I first fell in love with history in high school when I read a half-dozen of Catton’s works on the American Civil War. A journalist by training, Catton made history “come alive” if that can truly be said of any mortal writer. Open the pages of a book like A Stillness at Appomattox and I swear you can hear the crackle of muskets and the smell of smoke wafting across the battlefield.
The third factor is the book’s message. After spending several years talking with common Americans about their understanding of American history, journalist Tony Horwitz concluded that “Americans didn’t so much study history as shop for it.” We know what we want in advance, and then we go out and find it. And what we want from history—if we want anything more than sheer entertainment—is a reaffirmation of what we already believe.
A final, related factor involves not the message per se but our degree of faith in the messenger, that is, the author. Common sense tells us what systematic social-scientific research has confirmed: we all share a very human tendency to believe messages delivered by messengers we have confidence in. It’s sort of like buying a car. All other things equal, we prefer to learn our history from someone we trust, whatever their credentials as a historian.
What is missing from this list is any reference to evidence. Did you notice? Historical evidence, for most of us, is sort of like the foundation of a house. I remember when my wife and I were ready to buy our first home. In the back of my mind, I knew that the structure needed to rest on a firm foundation, but I didn’t waste much time thinking about it. I was a lot more concerned about floor plans and color schemes and square footage, and I remember being irritated when someone suggested that I should look underneath our dream home before buying it. (“You want me to crawl where??”)
I think we tend to evaluate history in much the same way. If a particular history book entertains us, that’s often enough to win us over. If we’re looking for more than entertainment—if we think that history should edify us somehow—we’re still not likely to give much weight to historical evidence. The book’s message will be far more important than the evidence it rests on. So when a book reinforces convictions that we already hold, we find it persuasive. If it promotes values that we already cherish, we conclude that it’s accurate. If a book confirms what we already believe or want to believe, why worry about the underlying evidence? Why check out the foundation when the rest of the house is so appealing?
I was reminded of this when the New York Times released its most recent Best Sellers’ list yesterday. The Rush Revere series, authored by that eminent historian, Rush Limbaugh, is now #1 in the “Children’s Series” category. Don’t let the label of the category fool you into thinking that this is small potatoes. A check of the “Amazon Top 100” list shows that all three titles in the series are among the best-selling books of any kind in America right now. Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims, which debuted just over a year ago, is currently #27 on that list. Rush Revere and the First Patriots, which followed a few months later, currently sits at #22. And Rush Revere and the American Revolution, which will be released next week on Veteran’s Day, is the #3 most popular book Amazon sells, entirely on the strength of advance orders.
The first two books in the series have been reviewed by over six thousand Amazon readers thus, and nearly 96% of the reviews are raves (4 or 5 stars out of a possible 5). What strikes me about the reviews is how commonly they praise the books for their historical accuracy. The books tell “the real facts,” are “truthful and honest,” and reveal “the REAL history of this amazing country.”
The question that keeps running through my head is “How do they know?” The books offer no evidence of any kind–that’s not surprising for works aimed at young readers–but how do the parents and grandparents who are praising the books know that they are historically accurate? My guess is that the third and fourth factors listed above are at play. Readers like the message and they trust the messenger. And this means that Limbaugh’s interpretation of American history must be “true.”
I totally get this, but it is utterly, wholly, and in every other way, illogical. I have shared numerous times on this blog that my political values are generally conservative, but just because a talk show host agrees with my politics doesn’t make him automatically a reliable historian.
With no apparent sense of irony, on the cover of each book in the series Limbaugh superimposes his own face on a historical figure. This is actually a marvelous metaphor for his approach to history, for he is repeatedly interjecting his own brand of twenty-first-century secular conservatism into the “exceptional Americans” he identifies in the past. Put differently, Limbaugh is constantly “revising” the past to make it more politically useful. His approach robs history of its power to challenge and teach us and transforms the past into one vast, blank screen on which to project his own way of thinking and seeing.
A prime example is the way that Limbaugh grossly distorts the Pilgrims’ understanding of liberty. I’ll conclude with an excerpt from a previous review of Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims that drives the point home:
Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims constantly exaggerates the similarity between the Pilgrims and 21st-century Americans. . . . A case in point is Limbaugh’s treatment of the Pilgrims’ commitment to liberty or freedom, a recurring theme throughout the book. We learn early on that the Pilgrims were “real people ready to give their lives for their freedom, no matter the cost, no matter the pain, no matter the sacrifice.” And indeed they were. But what the Pilgrims meant by “freedom” and what Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims conveys are two very different things.
Because this is a book for young readers, Limbaugh understandably does not provide an abstract, dictionary definition for freedom. Instead, he has various characters in the book discuss the concept and come to their own conclusions. For example, early in the book Rush Revere chastises his talking horse, Liberty, for misbehaving in a Dutch shoe shop (I am not making this up) and says that from now on Liberty will have to stay right by his side. “Your freedom to choose as you please is becoming troublesome!” he scolds the horse. But out of the mouths of babes and talking horses can come wisdom, and Liberty responds by telling Rush Revere that he sounds a lot like the tyrannical King James, who had similarly restricted the Separatists’ freedom in England. “I had a sick feeling in my stomach,” a chastened Rush Revere informs the reader. “I felt horrible for trying to force Liberty to do what I wanted.” Rush Revere apologizes to Liberty and adds, “And just for the record, I hope you never feel forced to do anything.”
In like manner, later in the book Limbaugh presents a conversation between Pilgrim soldier Myles Standish and Tommy White, a middle-school student who has accompanied Rush and Liberty on their trip back in time. When Standish explains that the Church of England had tried to tell the Pilgrims how to act and think, young Tommy furrows his brow and commiserates, “Yeah, I don’t like when people try to control me.”
So what is the definition of “liberty” that is being conveyed? It boils down to freedom from external control. If a horse wants to go into a shoe shop, he should be able to, and no eleven-year-old school boy should be forced to do anything against his will. This definition nicely conforms with modern American values: our understanding of “rights” as “what I want” and of liberty as the individual freedom to do anything, say anything, go anywhere, etc. But it bears only the most superficial resemblance to what the Pilgrims had in mind when they spoke of liberty.
The Separatists at Leiden had been taught a very different understanding of liberty than our contemporary notion. Central to their thinking was the concept of covenant, which emphasized not rights but responsibility—between God and man and between man and man. Consequently, the liberty that they venerated facilitated obedience more than autonomy, order more than individualism, and service more than self-expression. Liberty, as they understood it, was the freedom not to do whatever you wanted but to do what was right, and what was right was determined by the law of God and by your obligations to your neighbor. Liberty, then, was the freedom to pursue a life of faithfulness in the network of relationships in which God had placed you. In the words of the Pilgrims’ pastor in Leiden, John Robinson, “It is a Christian’s liberty . . . to serve God in faith, and his brethren in love.”
. . . As the Pilgrims understood the world, there was nothing particularly admirable about self-assertion or the insistence on individual rights. Rather, it was self-denial that lay at the heart of every virtue. In the words of Robert Cushman, a deacon in the Pilgrims’ congregation in Leiden, “Nothing in this world doth more resemble heavenly happiness, than for men to live as one, being of one heart, and one soul; neither anything more resembles hellish horror, than for every man to shift for himself.”
The Pilgrims have no authority over us, and their way of looking at the world is not automatically binding on us. But their world view was not the one that Rush Limbaugh has given them, and readers of Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims should at least know that.