The Future of Books and Reading: Extract from ‘The Future of History’ by John Lukacs

The Future of History

The Future of History

The name John Lukacs is known to history students the world over (he has written more than thirty books on the topic, including the acclaimed Five Days in London and A New Republic). In The Future of History (out now in paperback) Lukacs explores the literary art of history and the future of teaching, researching and writing about the past. In this exclusive extract, Lukacs discusses the future of the profession, and specifically, the future of history publishing.

Extract from The Future of History by John Lukacs (from the chapter ‘Future of the Profession’)

Until now I wrote much—perhaps too much—about the state of history at the present time. In some ways optimistically: that ‘‘history’’ has a future; that there is a new and widespread appetite for history; that much good history is written and published even now; that history may even absorb the novel. Some of these developments may go on and on. But I cannot be optimistic about the future.

We cannot know much about the future, save projecting what we can see at present: but so much of that will not come about. Some of it will. Foresight is something else than prophecy: foresight depends on a serious, sometimes inspired knowledge and understanding of some things in the past. Through this some of us may know that this or that will not happen; but also that this or that, lo and behold, might. The movements of history are not mechanical, not clocklike, not pendular. Reaching an extreme arc the pendulum moves back, but in another direction.

So, at least so I think, there will be no reversal. The teaching of history in our schools may decrease further. Fewer intelligent young students will opt for a career requiring a doctorate in history. We already know that fewer and fewer among our best students read. What vexes my mind even more: will the still present interest in history books and biographies continue? Will this, relatively new and recent, appetite for history prevail? Much of that depends on publishers and on other—not always inspired—promoters. There are plenty of examples in the democratic age when fairly widespread and exceptional tendencies faded and then disappeared, because they were no longer promoted by publicity.

At this time publishers still know that histories outsell novels; but does this mean that they are inspired by that condition? It does not seem so. Their dependence on quick, indeed instant, profits began at least fifty years ago; the same applies to television or movie producers. The structure of events, including the movements of people’s mental interests, is now complicated enough for us to identify the managed influence of publicity within them. In this, as in many other things, the term ‘‘consumer society’’ may be misleading, since the consumption of production depends on the—much more complicated—production of consumption, actual and potential. (Thus, for example, the diminution and the disappearance of newspapers reduces not only the availability of information but the habits and custom of reading.)

For many serious professional historians their opportunities and conditions of publication are shrinking at an alarming rate. A normal print-run (first printing) at many, if not most, university presses is now five hundred or even fewer (mostly because the number of college and university libraries customarily purchasing such titles has decreased by fifty percent or more). As a consequence, many serious monographs and even other works of professional historical scholarship have become excessively expensive; worse —they may not even appear on the shelves of bookstores, including the once inclusive university bookstores. The results of this devolution are frightening. (Surely they must frighten young aspiring historians within the profession.)

Will the current difference between ‘‘professional’’ and ‘‘amateur’’ historians narrow or widen? I cannot tell. The main subject of The Future of History […] is directed to the actual and potential problems of professionals: yet one more rumination may be in order here about ‘‘amateur,’’ that is, nonacademic, writers of history. Their motives, their genuine interest in history will not, I think, disappear, and probably not much diminish either. I even find it possible that the best (by this I mean much more than the most readable) histories in the near future may be written by nonacademics. But—I am now peering with my old tired eyes toward a darkening future—what will happen with their purposes when the world of books disappears? The purpose of a writer is, after all, to see his book published, and then hope that people, many kinds of people, may read it. (This purpose of ‘‘amateur’’ historians is clearer than is the case of at least some academic historians when the purpose of their completion of their book involves, besides publication, their academic advancement.)

Isn’t the writing of history, at least as we know it, bound to books?

John Lukacs

John Lukacs

John Lukacs is a Hungarian-born American historian who has written more than thirty books of history, including Five Days in London and A New Republic. He was a professor of history at Chestnut Hill College (where he succeeded Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn) from 1947 to 1994, and the chair of that history department from 1947 to 1974. He has served as a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University, Princeton University, La Salle University, Regional College in British Columbia and the University of Budapest, and Hanover College.

The Future of History is available now in paperback from Yale University Press.

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