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Bloch, Marc. The Historian's Craft: Reflections on the Nature and Uses of History and the Techniques and Methods of Those Who Write It. Trans. Peter Putnam. New York: Vintage, 1953.

Marc Bloch was a French historian who served as a staff officer in World War I and fought briefly against the Nazis before the coup that brought the VIchy regime to power obviated the desire to resist the Nazis militarily. Prevented from resuming his professional position by his Jewish ancestry, he became a leader of the Resistance in Lyons. In 1944 he was captured, tortured, and executed by the Nazis in a field along with twenty-six other people.

The Historian's Craft, begun in 1941 and largely written in 1942, left unfinished at the time of the author's death, is a marvelously sensible and humane book despite the circumstances of its creation. My advisor Andrew Barshay actually recommended this book to me this spring, and reading it now, it's hard not to see the congruences between the humane sympathy and critical historical analysis that Bloch advocates, and that Barshay practices in his own work. We've had conversations around these topics, and I remain convinced that some of the underdiscussed and underrated traits Bloch advocates are absolutely crucial to writing effective and affecting history. For example:

This faculty of understanding the living is, in very truth, the master quality of the historian. Despite their occasional frigidity of style, the greatest of our number have all possessed it. […] For here, in the present, is immediately perceptible that vibrance of human life which only a great effort of the imagination can restore to the old texts. […] In the last analysis, whether consciously or no, it is always by borrowing from our daily experiences and by shading them, where necessary, with new tints that we derive the elements which help us to restore the past. (43-44)

This is a book that couldn't have been written without the advent of the theory of general relativity and also the discovery of quantum mechanics, and Bloch continuously draws analogies and contrasts between history and other forms of science. I am not as convinced of the existence of time in the first place and its status as an independent variable in the second place as he is, and unfortunately the book breaks off just as he begins discussing the nature of historical causes and causality, which I would have liked to read much more of. Still, as a final testament and memorial to a great historian and a good man, what is here is more than enough.


ahorbinski: shelves stuffed with books (Default)
Andrea J. Horbinski

August 2017

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