Making history The storytellers who shaped the past

Richard Cohen, 1947-

Book - 2022

"A fascinating, epic exploration of who gets to record the world's history -- from Julius Caesar to William Shakespeare to Ken Burns -- and how their biases influence our understanding about the past. There are many stories we can spin about previous ages, but which accounts get told? And by whom? Is there even such a thing as "objective" history? In this lively and thought-provoking book, Richard Cohen reveals how professional historians and other equally significant, such as the writers of the Bible, novelists, and political propagandists, influence what becomes the accepted record. Cohen argues, for example, that some historians are practitioners of "Bad History" and twist reality to glorify themselves or their country. Making History investigates the published works and private utterances of our greatest chroniclers to discover the agendas that informed their -- and our -- views of the world. From the origins of history writing, when such an activity itself seemed revolutionary, through to television and the digital age, Cohen brings captivating figures to vivid light, from Thucydides and Tacitus to Voltaire and Gibbon, Winston Churchill and Henry Louis Gates. Rich in complex truths and surprising anecdotes, the result is a revealing exploration of both the aims and art of history-making, one that will lead us to rethink how we learn about our past and about ourselves."--

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2nd Floor 907.2/Cohen Due Oct 19, 2023
New York : Simon & Schuster 2022.
First Simon & Schuster hardcover edition
Physical Description
xxii, 753 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages [665]-708) and index.
Main Author
Richard Cohen, 1947- (author)
  • Overture: The monk outside the monastery
  • The dawning of history: Herodotus or Thucydides?
  • The glory that was Rome: from Polybius to Suetonius
  • History and myth: creating the Bible
  • Closing down the past: the Muslim view of history
  • The Medieval chroniclers: creating a nation's story
  • The accidental historian: Niccolò Machiavelli
  • William Shakespeare: the drama of history
  • Zozo and the marionette infidel: M. Voltaire and Mr. Gibbon
  • Announcing a discipline: from Macaulay to von Ranke
  • Once upon a time: novelists as past masters
  • America against itself: versions of the Civil War
  • Of shoes and ships and sealing wax: the annales school
  • The red historians: from Karl Marx to Eric Hobsbawm
  • History from the inside: From Julius Caesar to Ulysses S. Grant
  • The spinning of history: Churchill and his factory
  • Mighty opposites: wars inside the academy
  • The wounded historian: John Keegan and the military mind
  • Herstory: from Bān Zhāo to Mary Beard
  • Who tells our story? From George W. Williams to Ibram X. Kendi
  • Bad history: truth-telling vs. "patriotism"
  • The first draft: journalists and the recent past
  • On television:from A.J.P. Taylor to Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Cohen (How to Write Like Tolstoy), former publishing director of Hodder & Stoughton in the U.K., demystifies the act of history-making in this sweeping survey. He documents how European history was shaped by Greek philosophy, Roman mythology, and Judeo-Christian theology and formalized as a discipline by 19th-century German scholar Leopold von Ranke and others. Along the way, he profiles noteworthy historical figures including Isaac ibn Yashush, a Jewish physician living in 11th-century Spain who cataloged inconsistencies in the Pentateuch, and Marc Bloch, a historian turned French Resistance fighter who was executed by the Nazis in 1944. Elsewhere, Cohen examines academic debates over the ethical limits of revisionist history, analyzes the influence of cinema and digital technologies on historical scholarship, and compares ancient historians such as Thucydides and Herodotus, who "wrote to be read aloud," with Hamilton playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda. Though the biographical minutia threatens to overwhelm, Cohen makes a persuasive argument that history is created by historians as much as by politics, war, economics, and other forces, and convincingly shows how "the rivalries of scholars, the demands of patronage, the need to make a living, physical disabilities, changing fashions, cultural pressures, religious beliefs, patriotic sensibilities, love affairs," and other human concerns have shaped the understanding of the world. The result is a fascinating and finely wrought history of history. (Mar.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Library Journal Review

When Cohen (How To Write Like Tolstoy) was in school, his teacher was David Knowles, author of works on monasticism in medieval England. As scrupulous a historian as his mentor was, Cohen learned early that historians too have agendas: he contends that understanding a historian's ideology can help readers appreciate what's truly special in their work. This book, intended for the educated layperson, not academic specialists, is Cohen's love song to the profession of history; within its limits, it's extremely effective. Cohen's range is admirably broad: he discusses not just today's historians and their precursors but also William Shakespeare, composers of the Bible, and Samuel Pepys--all of whom, he contends, shaped perceptions of history scholarship, popular history, today's historical fiction, and the depiction of history on TV. Though mostly focusing on Western historiography, the book also touches on the influence of Arab historians and includes brief sections on Chinese and Japanese historical writing; the scantness of these sections is the book's only drawback. Overall, Cohen's judgments are insightful, thought-provoking, and thoroughly researched. VERDICT History lovers will find this exceptionally well-written book as insightful as it is a pleasure to read.--David Keymer

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

Former book publisher Cohen surveys the state of history writing over the past two millennia. This wide-ranging account hits most of the predictable points in a traditional, occasionally entertaining introductory-level course on the writers of history in Western civilization. Cohen, the author of How To Write Like Tolstoy: A Journey Into the Minds of Our Greatest Writers and other books, begins with a chapter on Herodotus and Thucydides and then moves steadily forward, with chapters on Latin historians, medieval European historians, Civil War historians, "The Red Historians: From Karl Marx to Eric Hobsbawm," and so forth. The work of Herodotus, he writes, "brought into play…a special kind of inquiry--one that encompasses geography, ethnography, philology, genealogy, sociology, biography, anthropology, psychology, and imaginative re-creation (as in the arts)." Cohen seldom considers history as written by scholars other than those in Europe and, later, North America, and he recapitulates the biography of each of the historians he considers, which leads to an uneven text. For example, he spends more time on Voltaire's many mistresses than on his thoughts and writings. This makes for smooth but rarely thought-provoking reading. While the book is useful as a broad overview for neophytes, readers looking for fresh insights into history and history writing should look elsewhere. As the narrative progresses, Cohen tends increasingly to group historians together not so much by historical period or approach to the subject matter as by less relevant standards. A chapter titled "Herstory" lumps together women scholars from the past 2,000 years, from Chinese historian and philosopher Ban Zhao to notable 20th-century historians Barbara Tuchman and Doris Kearns Goodwin, and the chapter on Black historians could have been more well considered. (Overall, the book is notable more for its length than depth.) Cohen branches out to consider, though seldom favorably, novelists, journalists, TV producers, and photographers as historians. The book is amply illustrated with photographs, maps, and cartoons. Lively but long-winded and largely superficial biographies of historians through the ages. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.