On Popular History and “Uncle Books”

It’s been a couple of weeks since Andrew Kahn and Rebecca Onion published their article, “Is History Written About Men, by Men?” in Slate. As a historian who has written for both a scholarly audience and a popular one, I keep up with publishing trends. I know the kinds of books I like to read and to write, and I’m always curious about how fashionable I am with either audience.

Kahn and Onion open the article with the fact that academic historians increasingly write about social and cultural topics that allow them to explore the everyday lives of women, racial and ethnic minorities, working class people, etc. These books sell in small numbers.

Popular history books, however, are primarily concerned with military and war subjects as well as biographies of prominent politicians, especially the Founding Fathers. These books sell lots and lots of copies.

Kahn and Onion dubbed these popular history books “uncle books.” They are “tomes that you give an older male relative, to take up residence by his wingback armchair.”

The description makes me think of Uncle Joe from “Petticoat Junction.” And it makes me wonder: If Uncle Joe received yet another book on Abraham Lincoln (Kahn and Onion’s research show a lot of them were published in 2015), did he read it? Or did it simply take up residence next to his favorite chair?

Angels of the Underground meets one of the criteria for an uncle book because it is about World War II. Andrew Miller, an editor at Knopf, told Kahn and Onion that World War II books continue to be reliable sellers, “But I think publishers are always looking for something different in addition to those more familiar books. My experience is that there’s always room for something out of the tried and true if it’s sufficiently ambitious and engaging and original.”

Angels is also not an uncle book because it focuses on women. That messes with the neat categories editors and publishers have about what is popular and what sells. Kahn and Onion quote Lara Heimert, publisher of Basic Books: “The conventional wisdom has been that men read more non-fiction and women read more fiction, though as with most convention wisdom in publishing (and life) I’ve never actually seen a study proving that to be true.”

Maybe it’s time to find out if that conventional wisdom is true. Maybe it’s time to make a big push for aunt books. But make them so compelling that they don’t simply take up residence. Make them ambitious, engaging, original, and un-put-downable. That’s what Aunt Clara would want.