History’s Trickiest Questions, by Paul Kuttner

History's Trickiest Questions

History’s Trickiest Questions is a trivia book of questions and answers about history. The questions are short—one sentence to maybe a short paragraph—and the answers are one and a half to two times as long on average.

This is because the questions rarely call for a simple fact, like a date or a person’s name. Or even when they do, an explanation of why that’s the answer is generally needed.

More often, the questions are “why” questions, or require some kind of story to answer. If this were a test, almost all of them would be “short essay” questions. For example, just opening the book at random:

What single event fired British Prime Minister Lloyd George’s mind not only to fight for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, but to become a fast friend of Chaim Weizmann?

So the answer would include the event, but also an explanation of why it was important, how George and Weizmann’s relationship developed from there as a result of it, etc.

Because the questions generally call for a certain amount of interpretation and explanation, rather than just being cut and dried, I would have expected the answers to be more qualified than most of them in fact are. That is, “Historians are uncertain about this, but some say….” To me, the author comes off as just a little too sure of some of his answers.

He also isn’t shy about tossing in some value judgments. I don’t know that that’s objectionable in itself, but again, if you’re going to do that, you probably need to be more meticulous about backing up your answers.

Insofar as there’s a possible bias, I did note that he seemed especially apt early in the book to use disparaging wording when referring to the actions of “Communist” nations, and not the U.S. and its allies. There’s less of that imbalance later, but the book does have just a bit of a “Cold War” feel to it. (It is from 1992.)

There are occasional questions that are only arguably best classified as “history” questions, and one clunker that stood out to me as probably not even being “arguable” in that regard:

How can dogmatism best be described in terms of religious belief? And why does a dogma take root in the human mind?

This is history? By the way, here’s the “answer” to that one:

The human mind will accept dogmatism—the positive assertion of belief—unconditionally as an article of faith that has been divinely revealed, but it will do so only if the divine origin from which the assertion emanates has been established in the mind of the beholder as a positive unalterable force revealing absolute truth.

To the extent I can even decipher this, it seems like a claim that is tautological in part, and dubious in part (especially when stated in such absolute terms). In any case, it needs a heck of a lot more elaboration than this to be both clear and persuasive.

And again, this is history?

But that’s probably the single weakest item in the whole book, so I’m OK with giving him a mulligan on it.

This book is a moderately interesting read, and the bulk of its information I did not already know, so I learned a fair amount.

But then again, my experience is that when information is presented in a trivia format, I tend to retain little if any of it, so I wonder just how much I really did learn from this book. I think I need to encounter facts in their context, as a part of some subject matter I’m genuinely interested in. And even then I still ultimately forget the bulk of the specifics of what I read. But at least that gives me a fighting chance.

Whereas if you took one of my trivia or “fun facts” type books off my shelf and read me questions from it, even if it’s a book I’ve read more than once, chances are I’ll remember very, very few answers. And I suspect the same will be true here.

Though the author’s decision to focus on more complex questions makes some of his answers a little dubious or overconfident, I wonder if he shouldn’t have gone even farther in that direction. (Which I know isn’t really a criticism, since it’s hardly a flaw of this book that it’s not a different kind of book that I happen to be speculating about.)

I remember a book from maybe thirty years ago called The Encyclopedia of Ignorance, which was all about what scientists are most keen to find out about the universe that we don’t yet know. How about a book very much like that except for historians instead of scientists?

What controversial areas most intrigue historians? If there could be some “Dead Sea Scrolls” type discovery tomorrow that suddenly provided a great deal of new evidence about some historical period, what would be the most valuable or interesting subject matter for it to illuminate?

Or more fancifully, if historians could go back in a time machine and see what really happened, when and where would they most like to go?

That kind of thing would certainly fit the History’s Trickiest Questions title, though The Encyclopedia of Historical Ignorance would work as well.

My guess is multiple things about Jesus would make the list. “Who killed Kennedy?” would be a possible candidate. Maybe whatever happened to Amelia Earhart or other people who disappeared.

Though maybe these are focused too much on discrete facts about individuals. Perhaps historians would put a higher priority on complex and interpretive questions, like why did such-and-such empire collapse, why did such-and-such country launch a war against this other country at this particular time, why did such-and-such religion spread to this area that other foreign religions failed to penetrate, etc.

Could be a fun book.


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