History is a powerful subject. Knowing the past allows you to understand the present. Understanding history overcomes the myopia of our limited lifetimes. History shows us alternative points of view and can show that our own perspectives are often parochial and arbitrary.
But history is often a hard subject to learn. Few subjects have as much factual density as history.
I believe it is this torrent of seemingly arbitrary facts, dates and people that can make learning history feel like a chore. It was the reason that I often avoided the subject, preferring to learn about math or science, which at least felt like I was making some kind of progress towards understanding.
However, I now believe I had been going about learning history the wrong way. I believe an alternative strategy for learning history, which is seldom suggested, is to focus on biographies instead of history books.
The biggest advantage to reading biographies is that our brains are not designed to store arbitrary facts. We remember stories better than trivia, and biographies ground a lifetime’s worth of historical events in the story of a single individual.
I had an interest in understanding the contemporary history of China ever since my trip, but it had mostly confused me. What was the difference between the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward? What came first, the Japanese occupation, the Kuomintang or the Communist Party? How did China start economic reforms? Were China and Russia allies or not?
Many of these events were confusing because they were presented as arbitrary facts and dates without any context. I had no memory structure to pin all of the details to, so in cases where the situation changed (China was closely allied with the Soviets under Stalin, but changed after Mao’s relationship with Khruschev soured) it often became hard to remember the facts.
The book that made sense for me wasn’t a history book, but the biography of Deng Xiaoping, Chairman Mao’s successor whose economic reforms turned China into a world power. By placing all of the tumultuous contemporary history of China through the eyes of one man and his associates, the history became accessible.
I’ve had a similar experience reading biographies of Albert Einstein to understand both early physics and the World Wars, Leonardo da Vinci to understand the history of Renaissance art and Daniel Kahneman to understand the history of Israel and experimental psychology.
The Problem with History is That There is Too Much of It
If your goal is comprehensive historical knowledge, biographies may feel like a backwards approach. This can feel like trying to see the forest by meticulously examining a single tree. Why go in-depth into just one person’s viewpoint, when there are thousands to see?
But this is exactly the problem with history, there’s simply too much of it. Trying to see everything at once doesn’t make you an expert—it just exhausts you with minutia.
Narrowing on a single biography allows you to shut the filter the information down to a meaningful chunk. If you pick the right person, you’ll still get generous coverage of historical events, but the events won’t feel as arbitrary and scattered. They will all be connected through a single source.
What About “Big History” Books?
Another alternative strategy that compresses history into an easily remembered narrative is to read “big history” books. These are books like Yuval Harari’s Sapiens or Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which try to tie many events together within a single framework.
I do think reading “big history” books has its merits. But the challenge with such books is that they often selectively cite and omit details to make a compelling historical narrative. The problem may be that there is no simple “story” which accurately conveys a lot of history, and as such, books with grand theories offer a lens for viewing the world which may be distorted.
Biographers are by no means perfect, and also suffer from biases when telling their stories. But because the historical details of an individual’s life are more naturally suited for a storytelling format, the need to distort to make the information comprehensible is lower.
In all, I think both biographies and “big history” books with strong theses can be useful, but the former is a relatively underused strategy by people who want to “get” history.
Who Shouldn’t Follow This Approach?
In arguing for reading biographies as a method to understand history, I’ve made some assumptions.
First, I’ve assumed that your goal is to have better historical understanding, not to pass a specific test. Obviously, if you’re in a history class that uses a particular history text, read that text, not a random biography of someone from the time period.
Second, I’ve assumed your interest in history is modest, not intense. Historians and others who are serious about learning history can overcome the difficulty of traditional history texts with serious study. I’m sure if my interests in post-dynastic China had been serious enough to make a full effort, reading dozens of texts may impart an even less-biased picture than a single biography might. The value of reading biographies isn’t that it gives the most accurate picture, but that it gives a particularly accessible one.
Third, some historical ideas might not work well within the framework of biographies. Understanding Buddhism, Western art or life in ancient Mesopotamia might require spans of hundreds of years, of which there may not be a biographical vantage point to understand the trends. Here the only solution is to read more traditional historical texts.
Still, as a tool for understanding history, I think reading biographies is an underused strategy. It has the benefits of organizing the information in a relatively comprehensible fashion, without some of the more severe distortions of books that attempt the same with larger swaths of history.
What’s your opinion on this method for learning history? Agree or disagree, I’m interested to hear your thoughts!