Narratives, World History, and the Books that Keep Us Coming Back for More

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You know you’re in the right line of work when going to an academic conference feels like a being a kid in a candy store. What fun: smart, well-read people gathered together for two and a half days to share their questions, reflections, and reading suggestions. And publishers who bring some of those books along, so we can browse, caress, and take some home at a discount! (Of course it helps a lot when the conference is not tied to the academic job market.)

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Image from Wikimedia Commons

I’ve just come home from the World History Association annual meeting—this time working on a suggestion for keeping some of the engaged, informal appeal of a summertime conference going well after the last of the book exhibit has been taken down. (Thanks to all the publishers who came—and shipped many of their wares. I think this was the most robust book exhibit yet at the WHA.)

At a round-table on narratives in world history, an audience member asked the provocative question: what book do you wish you had written? The conversation morphed into a discussion of books that were especially seductive or transformative: what texts encouraged us to be historians?

At Terry Burke’s suggestion, all the audience members listed their favorite books—the ones we wished we’d written, or the ones we read that prompted a change in our understanding of the field of history. Tonio Andrade took home the scraps of paper and started a bibliography. Being a bit compulsive myself about Zotero, I started a new public group library: World History Narratives, available to browse at http://www.zotero.org/groups/world_history_narratives/items

The 26 books named by those at the roundtable are identified by the tag 2010-WHA-participant contribution. The library is public—and open—so anyone can join the group and then add comments or contribute other titles. (You can also delete items, but please don’t; we’d like to keep a record of everyone’s suggestions.) We hope sharing the list will prompt more contributions, and comments on the books already here.

To set some context for the roundtable, it began with Tonio’s invitation to think about the role of narrative in world history. For him, this begs questions about the possibilities of micro history or biography in world history. Bob Strayer structured questions about defining and selecting the narratives in world history courses. Giancarlo Casale focused on what he calls the “narrative problem” of pre-modern world history as the field contends with the long tail of Western Civilization narratives that world history seeks to supplant. Nancy Toff offered solid editorial wisdom in form of “vitamins” for those who write literary history, an A-Z list of practical do’s and don’t’s of good prose. For me, thinking about narrative meant asking about the relationship between prose structure, argument, evidence and world historical questions. If New World History is an attempt to explore and explain the experiences of common humanity while eschewing a single totalizing narrative, then what space is left for narrative?

There’s lots of room for narrative, if the enthusiastic and informed conversation by the “audience“ (in quotation marks because their contribution sustained the conversation of the panel throughout the session) is any indication. Armed with a great summer reading list (and some recent releases from the book exhibit), I’m looking forward to both contemplation and production of world history narratives in the coming months.

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One Response to “Narratives, World History, and the Books that Keep Us Coming Back for More”

  1. Katrina Says:

    This is a great idea! I’m sorry to have missed the WHA this year, I enjoyed it last time in Salem.
    I don’t think a particular book led me to become a historian, but several have influenced my thinking since then.
    John Wills’ ’1688′, Nigel Barley’s ‘In the Footsteps of Stamford Raffles’, and Peter Pierce’s ‘Country of Lost Children’ each stuck with me in particular ways. While not exactly narrative history, one book I read more recently and which now haunts me (in a good way!) through my own research is Ann Stoler’s ‘Along the Archival Grain’.

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