Wondering Through the Shelves: Thoughts on History in American Bookstores

This weekend, I put words to a feeling that had been building for some time: bookstores have alienated me as an historian. Well, not all bookstores. Over the past few years, as I’ve made a habit of perusing whatever Barnes & Noble or local book sellers cross my path on weekly errands, I’ve drifted away from the beloved science-fiction and fantasy sections of my adolescence and towards the history section, looking to fuel my ever-burning desire to learn more about the events of the past, even after obtaining my official degrees. As I’ve done so, however, I’ve noticed a marked contrast between these American bookstores and the shops I used to frequent while studying in Oxford, and not for the better.

Serious history is generally not found in bookstores. That isn’t meant to be elitist or arrogant; I’m well aware that the bread and butter of academic presses, the most current and cutting edge analysis, is usually not very popular with the general public, and with good reason. Indeed, I only read a few serious academic works a year. Far more engaging are the works of public history, the volumes by respectable historians that practice good history while making that history engaging and easily digestible. As I hunt for my next big read, however, I am consistently disappointed by what I am offered.

History sections in American bookstores are small, almost pitifully so. My favorite bookstore in Oxford, Blackwell’s (not coincidentally J.R.R. Tolkien’s favorite store, as well), devoted almost half a floor to history. In contrast, the Barnes & Noble Heather and I visited on Saturday gave perhaps a third of that space, which is generally representative. If subject matter had still been equally distributed, I may not take much issue, but absolute space is only the tip of the iceberg. As many of you may know from my other posts here on Concerning History, my historical interests are…varied, to say the least. So when I look for books on comparative empires or early medieval archaeology or the Borgia papacy (foreshadowing for a future review, anyone?), I am increasingly irritated that bookstores routinely relegate all of these subjects to a section, usually called ‘World History,’ that only makes up perhaps twenty percent of the history section. The remaining eighty percent is devoted to just two subjects: United States (not even wider American) history and military history. Ancient/Classical history, which at Blackwells receives an entire floor-to-ceiling shelving unit, in the US receives rarely more than a couple  of individual shelves, often with many of its primary sources located in other sections (Homer and Virgil, for example, can be found in Poetry, which both does and doesn’t make sense to me).

On the one hand, this is understandable and predictable; Americans want to read about their own history. English history was by far the largest section at Blackwell’s, a state of affairs that suited this student of the British Empire just fine. On the other, though, Americans are often rightly accused of being isolationist or exceptionalist in their historical viewpoints; such topic distribution does not help, and may even contribute. I can’t help but wonder what other questions and problems might stem from or influence, in whole or in part, problems of public history and historical memory that historians decry.Can we be surprised when NPS visitors show no interest in ‘civilian life’ tours when the majority of history books on display in bookstores are military history of some kind? What does it convey to non-white members of our society when black, Native American, and Latinx histories are filed not in the history section but in the ‘ethnic studies’ section, implying that their stories are not really ‘history’? 

I confess I have neither the time nor the required expertise to truly begin to answer these questions, but I’m sure I will continue to think on them far into the future. I’m equally sure that my own experiences are only one of many; how many of you have found yourself at odds at the history presented for public consumption? How many of you have thought to yourself “That’s not quite right” or “Wow, really? You don’t have anything on…?” Or, equally, how many of you think these are the ramblings of someone with too busy a mind and too much time on his hands to write? Please, join in the discussion and help me work through my bookstore musings.

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