At the beginning of Mark Noll’s America’s God, which I recently started, he states the following:
… my hope for [America’s God] is that it might approach the ideal expressed by Caroline Walker Bynum in her remarkable study of the meaning of food for religious women in the Middle Ages. Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast is, she wrote, “about then, not about now…. My commitment, vision, and method are historical; I intend to reveal the past in its strangeness as well as its familiarity. My point is to argue that women’s behavior and women’s writing must be understood in the context of social, economic, and ecclesiastical structures, theological and devotional traditions, very different from our own. If readers leave this book simply condemning the past as peculiar, I shall have failed. But I shall have failed just as profoundly if readers draw direct answers to modern problems from the lives I chronicle.”
I think threading this needle – of avoiding the temptation of “simply condemning the past as peculiar” or alternatively “drawing direct answers to modern problems” – is the key to good historical writing (whether it is straight history, or biography of historical figures, or historical fiction or whatever). My complaint with Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo biography is that he drew too direct of a line between Leonardo and the white collar worker (me) listening to the audiobook on my commute to my cubicle. Alternatively, a large part of my appreciation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s historical novels is that she achieves this balance with such economy and grace. The two temptations Bynum mentions often work in tandem: to draw a direct lesson to our current moment frequently requires that anything that doesn’t “fit” gets condemned as impossibly peculiar (or ignored as irrelevant). It’s hard to hold the whole in mind. Of course, maintaining an alertness to both strangeness and familiarity is the key not just to good historical writing, but to being a good reader of history as well. Although really, a certain attentiveness to others, an attempt to keep the whole in mind, is just good life advice, irrespective of its importance for writing and reading.