You’re standing in a Barnes & Noble

…or your local independent bookseller.

There’s two books on the same topic, same person, or same event you see before you. Both reasonably priced, and priced in a reasonably similar range. Similar enough that you have no idea which to pick up and purchase.

A friend of mine, wishing to become more comfortably versed in the historic debates surrounding our Constitution (they were genuinely shocked that the United States had an entire government under The Articles of Confederation before we crafted our current one in the 1787 Constitutional Convention), asked for book recommendations, and after a pause, asked how I choose my history books in the first place.

FOOTNOTES: I pick up the book, flip to a page and pick a number, any number corresponding to a footnote. I flip to the footnotes in the back, and see what source is being highlighted. Is this a primary source? Something from history, from the examined historic person, or from a witness to a historic event? Or are the footnotes focused on secondary scholarship? Is this author quoting another scholar, another work? Is that scholar and their work one I trust?

If it’s a topic, person, or event I’m relatively familiar with, I choose the book that has more primary sources from the period highlighted in its footnotes.

If it’s a topic, person, or event that I couldn’t distinguish from Adam, Eve, and the Garden of Eden (translation: I dunno know shit about it), honestly it matters a little less whether it’s a primary or secondary source at this point in my scholarship. If I don’t know about something, I’m just trying to get a general context, wrap my head around the situation, and figure out what questions to ask. Then I can move forward in my “deeper dive” among the primary sources.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Who is this author crediting for their scholarship, thanking for helping them in their journey? That can tell you a lot. There’s one book I keep on my shelf as a “Danger-Will-Robinson” warning of what maybe not to do when interpreting history. Anonymity is kept here to protect those who be guilty of misrepresenting the depth of their scholarship. It wasn’t so much that they made false claims with the information included, but in a book about a complex and multi-faceted conflict, the book’s bias seemed heavily weighted toward one particular side. Representation of opposing sides was relatively quiet. Danger, Will Robinson.

About two chapters in, I flipped to the footnotes. Plenty of primary sources. Check. Exactly what I was looking for. I flipped to the acknowledgements. Ah. There was the rub.

The folks mentioned in the acknowledgements were representatives of a particular side that this book seemed to lean towards. Any mention in the acknowledgements of other representatives of opposing sides, or other invested perspectives of this historic conflict, were absent. Absent to the point that you wondered if this author had done due diligence and even reached out to the representatives of these other invested perspectives. Checking the Acknowledgements before I purchased could have helped me detect this obvious bias early. Lesson learned, and well-remembered.

That’s it. I hope this might be helpful.

Copyright Off The Porch History 2021


American-born Queen

photo source: Goodreads

Born Lisa Halaby in Washington, D.C. of Syrian-Lebanese and Swedish descent, Queen Noor Al-Hussein is a graduate of Princeton (1974), an activist, a mother and grandmother, and the widow of King Hussein of Jordan. Her memoir Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life, held a place on my mother’s bookshelf for years. I am grateful that my mother told me about American-born Queen Noor, as much as she told me about American-born Princess Grace.

H.M. Queen Noor on international nuclear disarmament, speaking at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum:

“… I see the potential [of nuclear weapons] for continuing and expanding what are already irrational arms races…increasing insecurity in those regions and eating up absolutely desperately needed human development resources, especially now when so many populations in those regions are under severe economic pressures, [and] the destabilizing consequences of climate change.

As a Muslim, just to add, I share the moral and spiritual concerns about the genocidal role of nuclear weapons, first expressed by the scientists who created them and witnessed the horror of their destructive impact and were the first advocates for what we are talking about tonight. The Holy Koran declares that killing an innocent is tantamount — one innocent life — to killing all of mankind.

…[nuclear disamament is] going to be a very complex process. I don’t think we should give up. I would ask our audience, any one of you that can have any impact on any group or individual or political decision maker to please engage, because one person … And the impact one person can have or the loss of one person — and I would add my husband to the mix as well — on the direction in which critical events go may have an impact for generations.”

Copyright Off The Porch History, 2021, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, and H.M. Queen Noor, 2018