What Does "History" Mean to General Readers? A Microhistory (sic) of my Adventures in the Bookternet
In addition to creating my own sort-of internet challenges for academics to read books outside their specialty, I'm participating in the BookRiot Read Harder challenge. I got interested in BookRiot through their challenge and their book fetish shopping guides, as well as their argument in favor consciously increasing the racial diversity of authors one reads, but I didn't really encounter their full-on philosophy of reader populism until I got into an argument with the site managers about the definition of the historical field known as microhistory, which is "task ten" in their 2015 challenge.
I was surprised to see this as a category in a popular reading challenge, but I thought it was pretty cool that people were going to read this somewhat obscure category of academic books, and I was looking forward to reading a new one myself. Not knowing what the latest microhistories were, I went to BookRiot's website to check out what they suggested reading. As one of the other academics in the comment section pointed out, not one of the books on the list was a microhistory. When she and I engaged in a bit of banter, one of her comments was deleted by the editors for being abusive. The moderators deemed it "name-calling"when she said that people who refused to listen when informed of the correct definition were being lazy and narrow-minded. I had traced the origin of the misdefinition to a reader-created list on Goodreads from 2008 which now has almost 900 books and 1400 individual votes. It used the term to classify such books as Mark Kurlansky's Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World. This characterization then seemed to spread from Goodreads to online book reviews and some public libraries.
Interestingly, and a tribute to its accuracy and fact-checking, Wikipedia's definition has stuck to the original one associated with the work of historian, Carlo Ginzburg who is widely understood by historians to be one of microhistory's inventors and the major theorist of the subfield. Moreover, the editors on Talk-Wiki clarify when asked that the "recent trend of books by Kurlansky et al" are NOT microhistory but rather "topical histories."
Recalling how excited I was when I first read Ginzburg's classic and genre-defining, the Cheese and the Worms , about the worldview of a 16th century heretic, and curious to see whether it is actually possible to correct a simple error once it has made its way around the internet, I made it my mission to try to reintroduce the original definition of microhistory to the reading community of the bookternet. Thank goodness for this website microhistory.org to which I can keep referring back every time I get into a debate with someone about what the term means. I am now mentioned as a participant in a "kerfuffle" over the meaning of the term in a BookRiot video, in which the website's managing editor has included both what they are calling the "academic" and "popular culture" meanings of the term. In case you are not following the links, here is a short definition of microhistory: it is a very detailed historical study of a person or a few people or a single small event, usually occurring in a specific place and during a short span of time, in order to tell some larger story about the culture as a whole. The History News Network explains the philosophical position a bit:
Ginzburg and many of his colleagues attacked large-scale quantitative studies on the grounds that they distorted reality on the individual level. The microhistorians placed their emphasis on small units and how people conducted their lives within them. By reducing the scale of observation, microhistorians argued that they are more likely to reveal the complicated function of individual relationships within each and every social setting and they stressed its difference from larger norms. - See more at: http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/23720#sthash.XPL268rI.dpuf
Clearly, any big study of something over hundreds or even thousands of years does not fit this definition. If "microshistory" means the history of marriage, manners, or cancer (Emporer of All Maladies is frequently mentioned as an example) then what do these folks think "macro" history is? This brings me to an even bigger question: what do general readers think history is? Judging from the History Channel, that would be wars. If you take a look at Amazon's best-sellers in history, none of them are by academic historians and a number of them aren't history but current events. So this suggests that history, for most of the public means any book of non-fiction. And right now, if the bookternet is "the general reading public", they are defining "microhistory" as the "history of just one thing" - and that definition has resulted in a massive list of books, which should not be surprising - since if you really think about it for any length of time, any book of non-fiction is going to be about "just one thing" - whether that one thing is a battle, a particular subject, your favorite cocktail, a year, a set of years, a pair of lovers in a small town in France, or the story of a 16th century heretic known as Menocchio. I looked through the list of 893 books and almost none of the books on the list fit the original definition of microhistory, but 2 are real academic microhistories and another 13 are kind of in the ballpark.
In my argument with BookRiot's editors, I said that to be microhistory, it should be confined to a concentrated period of time and one place. So, when in their video which includes my "technical" definition, they gave as examples two books about major battles in WWI and WWII. I'm willing to concede that they are closer to the mark, but probably, neither of these is a microhistory either. It's here that in my effort to not be pedantic, I was overly simple. Because even though those battles were single events happening in single places, they involved thousands of peoples, were of earth-shaking magnitude and just don't fit the basic methods of the field as defined by its founders. If these are microhistories, then every history of every battle would be a microhistory, thus turning almost all military history into microhistory. What makes a book like Pickett's Charge a microhistory vs. a book about Gettysburg in its entirety? BookRiot has pointed out that historians aren't entirely united in their definition of the field - and that point does appear in the first sentence of one internet article written by some students that does come up when you google "what is microhistory?" - but as even that article continues, it points out the same field-defining works, theorists and general theories and methods that appear in most academic pieces and wikipeida. Here is a short article that seeks to explain the fine points of difference between case-studies, biographies and microhistories. Here is another attempt to define the finer particulars and types of microhistory and here is another one. It's not that there aren't popular versions of Microhistory. Jill Lepore's work is influened by Microhistory, and I think it's arguable that Erik Larson is doing something like microhistory.
I also tried using my power as a Goodreads librarian to edit the title of the original problem list to take out the word "microhistory." That strategy worked for a few weeks, but then those who know the genre as defined by Cod, Milk, Cadavers, etc. discovered my edit and changed it back, One reader explained that whatever it is, microhistory certainly isn't about a single incident or a biography. Of course, many of the books about various subjects that appear on the list are journalistic studies of science, medicine or current events and aren't history at all. But since for the bookternet (which has no connection to the history-net), microhistory has come to mean something else, let's call it "general cultural studies of everyday life as defined through food, objects, diseases, practices and behaviors", There is now an effort underway to edit the microhistory list on Goodreads in order to get back to the original misdefinition. This effort includes purging all the classic works of microhistory from the list. All this argument and counter-correcting says something about the niches and corners on the internet that the PW people were talking about, and about the narrow readership that still exists for academic history, including, it seems, one of its most lively and accessibly written sub-fields, microhistory.
It is as if readers who really liked science fiction but didn't have a name for the genre decided that these books should be called "mystery" because the subjects were unknown, speculative and mysterious, and then made a list of what some of us would call science fiction works with the subtitle, "a narrative work about fictional characters dealing with the unknown" and then everyone who stumbled across the list just added their favorite novels until the list came to embrace the entirety of fictional writing and even some long poems (because the ending is unknown in all these books until you get to the end).. At that point, another group of people, identifying themselves as in-the-know, would then make an effort to bring the list back to a set of books that you and I would classify as science fiction and expunge such strange and inappropriate books as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from the list as insufficiently mysterious because they are not set in outer-space or in another dimension. Meanwhile, no one in their corner of the internet has read or written mysteries or knew that the term once referred to any other kind of book. If such people chimed into the discussion they became exotic or expert representatives of some obscure knowledge community, or for some, annoying pedants who should just get over it, or, at the extreme, mean-spirited book snobs who are ruining mystery reading for everyone.
Now, because I have argued so much about it there, people ask me on Goodreads, "Is X a microhistory?" and in most cases the books aren't history at all. Most of what people want to read are focused studies of recent current events written by journalists. This again reflects the popular understanding of history as found on the Amazon best-sellers page. No wonder teaching historical research methods is so difficult.