Sunday, November 22, 2015


One-book-itis is a malady that strikes amateurs in an academic field (e..g. history) when their reading in that field, on a particular topic, is largely restricted to one strong defense of a controversial position about that topic. The amateur simply doesn't know the field (e.g. history) well enough to realize that:

1) Of course any competent professional historian can marshall a strong case for any position he puts forward: he wouldn't put a case forward unless he could marshall strong evidence for it, and his entire professional life has been spent learning how to make the historical case for proposition X strong.

In particular, what the amateur overlooks here is that their champion for this controversial position is in a dialogue with other professional historians. And whatever view he is disputing, those others themselves put forward good cases for the view he is disputing: if they hadn't, he wouldn't even bother disputing it!

2) The professional discussion is nuanced. Say the topic is the causes of some revolution. The "old" view was that the main cause was the decadent actions of the royal family. The "new" view is that it was due to the ascendancy of a propertied class in the towns.

The amateur reads a single book, making the case for the new view, and becomes its enthusiastic proponent: "Smythe-Williams crushes the idiots who think the cause was royal decadence." But if the amateur were to attend a conference where a panel of "new-viewers" and "old-viewers" discussed the issue, he would find widespread agreement among the panelists that both sides have a good case, and that of course the discussion is simply over a matter of emphasis.

A case in point that has come up in comments on this very blog: did Rome "fall," or was there a smooth transition from "late Antiquity" to "the early Middle Ages"?

Bryan Ward-Perkins and Peter Heather have each written books arguing for the "fall" side of things, and an amateur who has read either book might declare either one to be gospel, and claim that it "demonstrated" that the gradualists have been completely wrong. By contrast, a professional reviewing the books understands that they appear as part of a dialogue, and that of course they are stressing one side of the events that they feel their predecessors have under-emphasized, and recognize the validity of claims for the other side. As O'Donnell writes in his review just linked:

"[Heather] is well aware, e.g., of the work of C.R. Whittaker on the symbiotic relations and evolution of relations back and forth across the Roman frontiers, but I suspect that the general reader of this volume will benefit little from it -- it takes the sharp scholarly eye to notice that the qualification is being made and then dropped."

The amateur lacks the "sharp scholarly eye" necessary to notice the qualifications, which essentially say, "Of course the gradualists are not nuts, and there is a lot about this transition that was, in fact, gradual, but I think they have over-emphasized that side of things, and unduly neglected the sudden transitions that occurred."

And an actual scholar of the period in question can recognize the merit in the "more of a fall" case, and still demur:

"In the end, both books are too linear in argument, too much devoted to special pleading for a single line of argument to sustain victory on a crowded field of interpreters. Heather is the better narrative history for the reader who wants to know what happened, while Ward-Perkins does a better job of situating narrative in a context of interpretative possibilities. If there is an implicit moral to each book, Ward-Perkins's is that human prosperity and happiness are fragile things and need to be worked at assiduously, while Heather's is that immigrants can be very bad for a society. The present reviewer will still be numbered amid the Reformers [gradual transition] and not the Counters [sudden fall], but of the two he finds Ward-Perkins's message more persuasive."

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