By Laura Harrison |

I have long harboured a secret desire to be a 63-year-old man- specifically Bill Bryson. I read Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything as a teenager and swiftly tore through the rest of my dad’s collection of his books. Bryson spent much of his career as a travel writer, and I am fairly confident my wanderlust began with this man. I have always admired how he combines travel, memoir, biography, history, and humour in a magical way that produces brilliant books. Bryson has always focused a lot on history in his travel books, but more recently he has been writing specifically popular histories (At Home, One Summer). He makes history accessible, relevant, funny, and his books are read by millions of people- this man is my idol.

Yet as a collective academic audience we tend to look down on popular historical writing, especially when it is not done by someone with a PhD. We dismiss it as simplistic or, in the case of academics, ‘selling out’. Even as historians, we are afraid to admit that occasionally we also enjoy learning about history in this way. After a long hard day, I like to go home and watch Neil Oliver’s hair blowing epically in the breeze- it’s comforting. Academics are becoming more open to popular historical writing, but I still feel there is a general dismissal of it. I think this is a detriment to the entire field, and therefore I am writing this post to make a case for popular history.

Some of the positives of popular history:

  • It gets people interested in history
    • I have had this debate many times before- if something inspires someone to look further into an historical event/person, does it matter how it is presented? I study the Scottish Wars of Independence and I will happily admit that I first became interested in the subject because of Braveheart. Now, of course, I cannot watch the film without feeling an unhealthy level of rage, but I took my first course on the topic because I thought the movie was cool. Another example is Call of Duty: Black Ops, which focuses on the Cold War. At one point I believe you fight zombies, but you also learn about the major players and events throughout this complicated time period, without ever realising that you are learning. This may inspire some people to look into the subject further, and we thus accept another history nerd into the fold.
  • We want to stay relevant
    • In the arts and humanities we always complain about not being funded as much as maths and sciences, and I am amongst the loudest of these complainers. However, if we can’t make the public see the relevance of what we do then that is never going to change. Funding goes where interest and pertinence is.
  • People actually read your work
    • Personally, I am not doing this PhD in order for the fifty people also interested in my subject, and probably students I coerce into doing so, to read whatever I publish throughout my career. We all believe we have something important to say or else we wouldn’t be spending 3-4 years trying to say it. There is nothing wrong with wanting your work to reach a wider audience.
  • Money
    • Popular history pays more than academic history. Academia is not the most lucrative career at the moment, especially when you are starting out. A little extra cash is always useful to pay your mortgage or student loan payments.

Of course, not everyone can nor wants to write popular history. Subjects about war, sex, and the many wives are Henry VIII are always going to be more popular with the public. Some academics only want to write for a specialised, knowledgable audience. Some people want to do both. I believe all of these views have a place in the world of historical writing. As long as our goals are to produce well-written and well-researched works, let’s embrace everyone who wants to contribute to the field of history.


(Photo: Shakespeare and Company Bookstore,