Richard Cohen explores how professional historians and other equally significant witnesses—such as the writers of the Bible, novelists and political propagandists—influence what becomes the accepted record. Making History investigates the published works and private utterances of our greatest chroniclers to discover the agendas that informed their—and our—views of the world.
... an enthralling investigation into the ways in which the background of historians affected and affects the way they present the past. Using such lively material as autobiographies (for which historians have had a predictable fondness), letters and the comments of contemporaries, he brings to life Herodotus, Tacitus, Muhammad, Machiavelli, Voltaire, Gibbon, Marx and Churchill as well as the modern tele-historians Mary Beard and Simon Schama. Black history and 'herstory', novelists and journalists, Bible stories and military campaigns, Putin’s revision of Russian history: all pass under his consistently entertaining scrutiny. There are memorable anecdotes galore ... Cohen’s warm, well-modulated voice underlines how much he has enjoyed constructing his historical Tower of Babel. This is one of those books that I’ve enjoyed listening to so much that I’ve also bought a hard copy.
Sprawling and wildly ambitious, idiosyncratic and also consistently readable and engaging, Making History dives deep into the way history-driven scholars and artists — from Burns to Shakespeare to Herodotus — have shaped the collective memory of humankind. Championing both famous and largely forgotten historians as well as storytellers, filmmakers and photographers, Cohen’s volume offers memorable anecdotes and reasoned judgment as it explores themes including the foundational mythos of the Old and New Testaments ... Cohen clearly prizes narrative flow over ivory-tower historical analysis, stressing novelists’ and playwrights’ ability to conjure the atmosphere of past times and places instead of just recording facts ... Somewhat ironically, Cohen then holds up Chinese writer Ban Zhao (45-116) and Byzantine scholar Anna Komnene (1083-c.1153) as examples of underappreciated female historians — though both made their names supporting and writing about men ... Among Cohen’s strengths is his sheer enthusiasm for his favored writers.
Cohen is English, and was the director of two London publishing houses, biographical facts that, to apply his own test, might account for (a) his willingness to treat journalism, historical fiction, and television documentaries on a par with the work of professional scholars, since, as a publisher, he is interested in work that has an audience and an influence, and (b) the Anglocentrism of his choices ... But...whatever Cohen writes about he writes about with brio ... A very good thing about Making History is that, despite the book’s premise, it is not reductive or debunking. Except when Cohen is discussing writers like the nationalist revisionists, whose bias is blatant and who aim to deceive, and some Islamic historians, who he thinks are dogmatic and intolerant, he tries to present a balanced case and allow readers to make their own judgments ... He is not sloppy, exactly, but he can be a bit breezy ... And there are (inevitably) assertions one could quarrel with.