Every semester that I teach a methods course to undergraduate history majors, I tell them that just because someone has written a book on a historical topic, that does not make the author a historian. (After all, writers who explore medical topics cann’t expect readers to consider them doctors.) In that methods course, I have the students read one of my favorite articles, Jill Lepore’s “Plymouth Rocked” (see previous post), and we talk about proper training in historical research methods. I tell them that for their research projects, they may only consult works written by academic historians. They all nod in agreement.
I’m not sure how much of this sticks. Actually, I know that it doesn’t stick very well with many of the students. Often, they bring books to show me, trying to convince me that they would be just perfect for their papers. Not written by a historian, they admit, but still, it looks perfect. There’s a bibliography in the back and everything. They are not happy when I don’t make exceptions.
And now, unfortunately, I think I will be enforcing this rule by using Bill O’Reilly’s books as an example about why readers should pay attention to who wrote the book they are about to read. It may be about important historical figures, have a grabby title–using “Killing” is bound to draw readers in–and it may have an easy-to-read style, but that doesn’t make it the best book to read on that topic.
I believe that if you are going to invest in a book–with your money and your time–it should be a quality product.