We Were There: An Eyewitness History of the Twentieth Century | Edited by Robert Fox | Overlook Press | 391 pages, $30

Reading We Were There: An Eyewitness History of the Twentieth Century was a fast-paced but wrenching experience, since it left me splayed on the horns of a dilemma: whether to succumb to its pleasures or dig in my heels and protest.

Let me explain. The book is built around a mass of eyewitness accounts, many of them recorded by journalists. “All aim at the same magical effect,” explains the volume’s editor, Robert Fox (himself a reporter and broadcaster), “of giving the reader the sensation of being there at great and curious events, and with extraordinary people.”

TV’s vision of history, in other words. That at least was my sensation. Reading the book became like watching a vast televised documentary—gripping and apparently edifying at the moment, but upon later reflection, hollow and warped like a funhouse mirror. As presented here, life in the twentieth century has been largely a matter of violence and sudden death. A space alien, having read We Were There, would conclude that the era consisted exclusively of wars, with some exciting stuff like exploration and revolution thrown in; that the Earth was largely populated by venturesome, death-defying males (many of them journalists), and that human beings had no concept whatsoever of cause and effect. Events here just sort of happen, virtually naked of plausible causation and clad in the merest tissue of explanatory material. Yet they are still riveting and dramatic, so you keep reading, mesmerized like a kid in front of a widescreen. It’s fun, but it isn’t really history, or shouldn’t be.

It’s pretty clear that Americans live in a time of vast historical ignorance; it even seems to be accelerating. Some might argue that’s not such a bad thing in rapidly changing times, that the past simply has no precedent to measure the impact of things like iPhones.

That may be true for electronics. But we remain human beings, big mammals with the same genes and much the same cultural approach as our ancestors. We also seem to be prone to many of the same foibles, including a gift for historical amnesia. “Those who do not remember the past,” Santayana warned, “are condemned to repeat it.” Mark Twain remained skeptical about the repeating part of history, but he did add that “sometimes it rhymes.” That’s a useful notion. Just as rhyming helps us to sing a song, historical analogy can get a statesman oriented and ready to face a crisis, or explain to a population the whys and wherefores of events confronting them. History can be valuable stuff—if only more people would read it.

Actually, there are plenty of signs that Americans (or at least some of them) do want to know about their past: witness the legions of genealogy perusers and Civil War reenactors. But you can only take such things so far. Real historical understanding requires access to a compelling and edifying body of literature.

Unfortunately, academic history, which generally does provide a balanced and analytic approach to describing the past, is all too often not much fun to read. In part, this is simply due to subject matter. Careful historical treatments of economic and technological developments, immigration, or labor trends are simply not as eye-catching as mass mayhem. That’s a given. But many academic historians compound the problem with an almost mulish proclivity to write badly, or more accurately, without any style at all. The end product is a kind of scholarly mush garnished with indigestible block quotes, all of it manifesting a profound indifference to the appetites of the reader.

There is also a reluctance to write narrative history—to present broad portraits of substantial chunks of time. Instead, the field is filled with specialists whose instinct is to produce monographs miles deep and inches wide. Yet we human beings are addicted to stories; it is our nature and heritage. This is what people look for when they come to history. And when they can’t find it, they stop coming.

Robert L. O'Connell is a contributor to CJR.