The Art of History, Unlocking the Past in Fiction & Nonfiction, Christopher Bram
Books about writing history are hard to find, so this new addition to the canon is a prize—in every sense. The Art of History is a slim volume that packs a lot of punch.
Christopher Bram is a passionate consumer of history, and a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. His homage to the subject covers all the dynamics of craft, from story structure to the use of details. And scattered throughout is an eclectic mix of fiction and nonfiction examples, because “they’re two sides of the same mountain.” Bram unpacks these examples to show us what works—and what doesn’t.
Historians are a breed apart, suggests Bram. They revel in a snowstorm of cross-checked facts, but most readers don’t. “The truth of the matter is that many people—maybe the majority—don’t like the past very much,” he writes. But, with that truth laid bare, Bram goes on to illustrate how successful writers satisfy readers’ interests.
“I believe history’s original appeal is as pure escape,” writes Bram. “The past offers a fact-based fantasy, a dream with footnotes.” And in that fantasy readers discover the roots of current events, he adds, taking them deeper into the near and distant past, and beyond a need to know what happened into “the mystery of why.”
And then there’s our universal love of story. History is story-rich and the “ghosts are in the details,” says Bram, in a chapter devoted to this subject. “Most good writing is built out of details, of course, small strokes of observation, little shocks of recognition.” But collecting those gems requires a different kind of acuity to that of fact finding, he warns. And then there’s the trick of knowing which details and how many will fire the reader’s imagination—or overwhelm her.
Bram addresses the reverse issue too, the historical subject with long pregnant gaps in available information. The journals or novels of a contemporary can be a stand-in, he suggests, supplemented by educated guesses that are revealed through the judicious use of maybe and perhaps. (More on this subject would have been helpful because those words break the storytelling spell.)
There’s a lot to admire here. Beyond Bram’s thought-provoking insights and his own silky writing, there’s the bonus of his review of loved books. My copy is marked throughout with reading to add to my stack.