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New Books in History
Historians are not supposed to make stuff up. If it happened, and can be proved to have happened, then it's in; if it didn't, or can't be documented, then it's out. This way of going about writing history is fine as far as it goes. It does, however, have a significant drawback: it limits the historian's ability to tell the truth-not the truth of "facts," but the truth of stories. Facts are facts; stories have meaning. Most history books are full of facts; yet many lack stories, and necessarily so. As a practicing historian, I can tell you this situation is very frustrating. We know that sometimes the facts are just not enough, but there is nothing we can do about it within the confines of our discipline.
There are historians-if that's what they are-who just can't stand these restrictions. They want to tell historical stories, and they do. They write "historical fiction" and, as a rule, they get very little respect in the literary or academic worlds. I doubt most of them are bothered. Why should they be? Historical fiction is remarkably popular: thousands of titles appear each year and those titles are read by millions of readers. Who cares if literary journals and professional historians poo-poo historical fiction? People love it.
Once in a great while, however, a book comes along whose truth is so powerful that even the literary critics and professors take notice. Francis Spufford's Red Plenty: Industry! Progress! Abundance! Inside the Fifties Soviet Dream (Greywolf Press, 2012) is such a book. It contains more "truth" about the Soviet project than an entire library of "serious" novels and dry-as-dust histories. If I had to recommend one book on the Soviet Union to someone who wanted to understand it, Red Plenty would be it. Read it.
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