Early in her book, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, Margaret MacMillan sums up the reasons why I read history.
“History, if it is used with care, can present us with alternatives, help us to form the questions we need to ask of the present, and warn us about what might go wrong.”
Many people have suggested how to use what we learn from history. George Santayana said something often paraphrased as “Those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it.” What he actually said was “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I like the comment attributed to Mark Twain: “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
I picked up this book because I read Margaret MacMillan’s book, History’s People, a few years ago. She impressed me with her analysis and the way she told stories. This book has more analysis and not so many stories.
If you read history and if you’d appreciate a professional historian’s view of how history has his will be a good book for you. If you’re looking for a quick how-to on how to sort out lessons from the history, you’ll be disappointed.
The subtitle promises that you’ll learn about the uses and abuses of history, but the book is mostly about the abuses. There are suggestions on what you should do to use history sensibly, but they’re not very specific. They probably can’t be, but a fellow can hope.
You’ll like this book if you read history and would appreciate a professional historian’s view of how people have used history. There are also ideas about how to do it better. Otherwise, give this book a pass.
It’s an interesting book. Ms. MacMillan is a savvy professional observer and a professional historian. But, to use a phrase from business and the military, there’s not much actionable here.
Resources on Using History
Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers by Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May
The Lessons of History by Will Durant and Ariel Durant
Why Don’t We Learn from History? by B. H. Liddell Hart and Giles Laurén
You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on my GoodReads page.
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