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I never used to be one for original sources. I don’t mean that I would cobble together my history writing from secondary texts and other people’s ideas. But the actual texture of the past left me cold. Some researchers get positively feverish at the sight of dusty letters or a crumpled diary from the storeroom of a provincial archive. My own feelings were the exact opposite. All that dust made me sneeze.

I couldn’t tell anyone about this aversion to the raw material of my trade. Historians and biographers are supposed to dig deep in their search for authenticity: the…

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