A leading thinker recommends five books about his or her field of interest. This month, the topic is the History of the Present, with books chosen by historian and journalist Timothy Garton Ash.
The Histories Herodotus
Herodotus was, in a way, a historian of the present. He is the father of us all. Herodotus is really the first one who goes around with his eyes and ears and notebook open, recording all these fantastic stories and trying to put it all together to work out what happened and why. He is the first person who does this business of saying, “Well this is what the Persians say about it and this is what the Greeks say about it, so let’s try and work out what’s the truth in between.”
Modern readers of Herodotus can learn a fair amount about how history happens—the interplay of individuals, personalities and larger forces like economics, geography, technology and, of course, chance. It’s all there in Herodotus, along, it has to be said, with a lot of fantastical details, like ants the size of dogs, flying snakes and stuff like that. It’s also a lot of fun and there’s vigour in the prose.
Historical and Critical Essays Thomas Babington Macaulay
Macaulay is the greatest historical essayist in the English language, in my view. This Everyman edition is two volumes of his essays from The Edinburgh Review, which was The New York Review of Books of its time. It had long critical review essays of the kind people are still writing. Although Macaulay was a teeny bit dismissive of his own work in the genre, they are actually models of their kind, full of wonderful insight. The essay on Frederick the Great in volume two will just have you rolling in the aisles. Quite a lot of my work is on the frontier between literature and politics, and Macaulay is absolutely there. He writes a wonderful essay on Milton.
If you did a search, you probably wouldn’t find Macaulay being mentioned more than once a month these days, but he’s an absolute master of the genre and I think many people are still in his debt without quite knowing it.
Homage to Catalonia George Orwell