In the last post on Carlo Ginzburg, I said, truthfully, that I prefer academic history to those intended for a wider readership. On vacation, in a friend’s house, I ran out of books to read, so I picked up Joseph Dahmus‘ A History of the Middle Ages off their shelf. It was the first textbook I’d read in easily 20 years.
There two types of history textbooks: those written by committee and those written by individuals. Neither is entirely satisfactory, but the second is generally more valuable. The textbook written by an individual is likely to be a better read, which matters when one is reading a textbook, something one would prefer to avoid. Dahmus has some sort of authorial voice in his prose. A second and probably more important point is that an individual author is more likely to make some sort of argument or, rather, to do so more or less transparently. All textbooks, of course, make arguments. The problem with those written by a group with the sole purpose of tapping into the lucrative textbook market is that they hide their arguments behind a veil of objectivity. The arguments are made in the selection and omission of facts. Dahmus, to his credit, will make statements like “so-and-so argues this about that, but is wrong for this reason and this other.” We know when an argument is being made.