[SIGCIS-Members] Why don't real historians write popular works?

Dave Walden dave.walden.family at gmail.com
Mon Oct 13 04:42:30 PDT 2014

At 07:03 PM 10/12/2014, Jonathan Coopersmith wrote:
>There is another reason why historians don't write popular books, a 
>fear of being labelled a synthesizer by one's 
>colleagues.  Admittedly, that may be partially due to jealousy at 
>the publicity and income of a best seller, but it is a real issue 
>especially within the reward structures (such as they exist) of universities.

I wish there was a little more tolerance for different approaches and views.
    I see many things as real history work: narrow research into 
primary sources for narrow audiences; synthesis for broad audiences; 
histories with lots of technology details; personal stories written 
by participants in the history; writing with lots of context and 
historiography; writing without context and historiography; etc.
    I envision all these different types of history writers 
struggling to make a living or accomplish what they see as a worthy 
life in the environment in which they chose to work (each with some 
annoyance at the way their environment operates). I bet very few make 
"big bucks" from writing computing history.  Even a "best seller" in 
the computing history domain perhaps doesn't make enough money to 
enable the writer to stop working (although I suspect that a writer 
with a popular success can make, for a while, some additional money 
giving paid lectures).
    I see everyone having their own compulsions for writing (people 
who don't like to write or don't have a need to write don't write 
enough to matter): some people write to further their careers; some 
find a way to make a career of writing; some write for the joy of 
seeing themselves in print; some write to record what they want the 
world to know; etc.  (Given all the success Isaacson has had outside 
of writing history, I'd guess he is writing his books for some other 
primary reason than to live off of the book advance or royalties.)
    I also suspect that when members of the various tribes get 
together alone (professionally trained historians or amateur 
historians or journals historians, etc.), they all have dismissive 
things to say about the people not in their particular tribe and the 
way that other tribe writes history and the way their world works. 

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