Help me find unbiased books about some nations I am interested in.
August 31, 2006 11:57 AM   Subscribe

I was a dumb teenager, and I wasn't interested about other nations history. Couple of years ago, after reading 1984 I quickly changed my mind, but I also realized that history is full of one-sidedness (just like in 1984 unfortunately).

I really don't want to read 20 books that have 20 different sides about a same subject, so I'll try my luck with MetaFilter to find books with as-much-as-possible unbiased content.

Here's a small list of some nations I am interested to learn about, but feel free to add more if you feel so:

- China & Japan
- India
- Russia
- Cuba
- Germany
- Israel
- Iraq
- France
- Iran
- Canada
- Cambodia
- Congo
posted by GrooveStix to Education (29 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
History is, by definition, always completely biased.

Some of those countries especially, expect that you will always find many books with vastly different viewpoints on their subjects.

Though, for me at least, this is a big part of what makes history so interesting.

If you are looking for a single book with an unbiased viewpoint, I'm afraid you're out of luck. However, there are tons of great books on all those countries and reading any of them will at the least be interesting and give you a lot of information.

One suggestion that might help, is looking for anthologies with a number of authors writing shorter pieces on a subject. It lets you get a broader view of how the history is seen, and hopefully, helps to lead you into a much greater understanding.
posted by teishu at 12:11 PM on August 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

Unbiased is just not going to happen. But I would read People's History of the United States just to see how different viewpoints can be, althought the US is not on your list.

I am proud of you, though. It's great that you're not a "dumb teen" any more.
posted by sweetkid at 12:21 PM on August 31, 2006

I agree with teishu. I learned a great deal about Congo's history when I read a critical edition of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. (Critical editions include popular/important articles on the author, style, theory, bais, and history involved in a piece of literature).

If you wanted perspective-free history, Wikipedia or another encycliopedia would get you the most information the quickest. Any other history books would be pushing ideas about trends, themes, and other such patterns -- and probably be too specific for what you're after.
posted by cowbellemoo at 12:30 PM on August 31, 2006

I think it's good to get a reasonably objective perspective on topics like this, but I also think that just looking at sources that claim to be bias-free is often more dangerous than those that explicitly claim to have an opinion. "Biased" works are more likely to be upfront about their biases.
posted by occhiblu at 12:41 PM on August 31, 2006

"History is written by the winner..."

dunno who wrote that but its a pretty classic reason why it is very difficult to find unbiassed historical references.

the wiki link there has some good info on, too.
posted by lonefrontranger at 12:54 PM on August 31, 2006

arrrgh.... Wiki link here.
posted by lonefrontranger at 12:55 PM on August 31, 2006

If you're generally interested in the nature of power and how it operates I would recommend reading Chomsky. Here is an audio interview (one of many) where he gives an overview of why the type of bias you describe above evolves. It's located about half way through.

One caveat: Chomsky is a controversial figure but he is undeniably a compelling proponent of individual thought. Folks in this thread will offer differing viewpoints and you should consider those as well - provided they are with merit.
posted by quadog at 12:56 PM on August 31, 2006

I suggest you stop reading national histories. Nations are relatively new and their histories usually can't be studied in isolation. For example, starting US history at 1776 or thereabouts doesn't make any sense.

I suggest you focus more on world history at first. Study it from mesopotamia up until today in a very broad sense and then focus in on the sections that interest you.

I suggest you start by reading H.G. Well's Outline of History. It is a little dated. He is a little tilted in his emphasis, but on a whole, it is fair, informative and very entertaining. He injects his views occasionally, but at least he does it openly. It gives you a great grasp of the course of human history in two short volumes.

I can't recommend it enough!
posted by milarepa at 12:57 PM on August 31, 2006

King Leopold's Ghost is a brilliant (though horrifying) examination of Belgium's colonization of the Congo.
posted by scody at 1:10 PM on August 31, 2006

For China I would reccomend "The Rise of Modern China" by Anthony C.Y. Tsu. It is pretty balanced but you need to consider that it was written by a person of Taiwanese origin, especially when you get to the end. I think it should be coming up on 5 edition now.
posted by BobbyDigital at 1:16 PM on August 31, 2006

H.G. Wells was a plagiarist.

Maybe start with one country or region, and read 3-4 different takes on its history to get an idea of how history works and what biases to watch for? You could start with the Congo and the two excellent and very different books mentioned above.
posted by LarryC at 1:18 PM on August 31, 2006

Just a small comment: there are a lot of us who really like history and think Chomsky and Zinn are bunk. Specifically, A People's History of the United States fails utterly to consider what people in the past went through and considered important. Lots of people nowadays will tell you (and you should know that they're generally echoing Howard Zinn) that all history is biased. Well, sure; but if you're really serious about understanding history, then the point is to understand what went on in those peoples' heads. That means setting aside your individual biases and trying to meet them on their own ground. In short, history is the removal of bias, that is, the removal of one's own biases in the attempt to understand other people. I personally believe Zinn and Chomsky fail spectacularly at this, and think that they're steadfast creatures of their moment. You'll have to judge for yourself, but remember not to be too trusty.

As far as histories of those nations go, there's really only one way you can reduce bias. Read as many sources as possible. It sounds hard, and sometimes it is, but it's not that difficult to get started. You have, first, to find a good library. Second, start with the simplest, stupidest account of the history of the country you want to study. (I like starting with the World Book Encyclopedia, because it seems to be written for third-graders.) After you have the bare 'facts,' move up; look at the section pertaining to the country you want to study, and see where those 'facts' are challenged. See what various perspectives are. Read introductions of books to get a feel for the point of view of the authors. Read whole books if they seem outstanding.

That's how I do it, anyhow. And, I'm guessing, how 'real' historians do it, too.
posted by koeselitz at 1:25 PM on August 31, 2006

I wish I had good recommendations for you. I'll just note that all books have biases because books are ultimately the products of frail, flawed human beings, who themselves are never free of some bias or another.

You're probably going to have a tough time finding objective books about Cuba and Israel because of the controversial leader of the former and controversies surrounding the very existence of the latter.

Anything dealing with the Congo and Cambodia is going to be very, very depressing. Just warning you ahead of time.

As others have said above, many congratulations to you for deciding not to be a stupid teenager and adopting a cosmopolitan outlook.
posted by jason's_planet at 1:27 PM on August 31, 2006

The above answers gave you the certainly-true "can't be studied in isolation" and "in context of other societies" answers. I'll try to contribute a couple useful books on the only of those countries I know well, and I got to them exactly the way koeselitz suggested above - reading the basics, reading a lot, and then moving outwards:

Perez, L.A. Cuba and the United States: Ties of Singular Intimacy, is a book on Cuban history that covers some of the old old past to give context but focuses mostly on the mid-1800s on (you know, when the US got in on things). It is not "unbiased" so much as the book makes it much easier to see why the US wanted Cuba, why everyone else wanted Cuba, why being affiliated with the US was good for Cuba, and ultimately why it was not.

If you then want a broader context, check out some of Perez' other Cuba books, where he covers not only the straight history but its effects on and ties to cultural/social history. On Becoming Cuban is a classic of his.

From there, I would look at some of the more, erm, "literary" entries that don't sell themselves as history books per se but still tell the stories of different times and classes in the country. If I had to pick two they would be:
- Miller, Tom. Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba: Written from a very American perspective as the author visits Cuba several times over the course of a couple decades.
- Greene, Graham. Our Man in Havana: An Entertainment: shennanigans, spies, more expats (but Brits), different times (pre-Castro).
posted by whatzit at 1:27 PM on August 31, 2006

If you're interested in a country, read a couple of histories from different points of view, read memoirs by people from that country, read novels, poems, and so on—try to get as many handles on it as possible. The more you absorb, the more it will all make sense.

For a general, covers-the-waterfront, reasonably objective book on world history, you can't do better than The Encyclopedia of World History (6th edition, 2001), by Peter N. Stearns. I love plunging in at random and finding out what was going on in Bulgaria in the 13th century (or Mesopotamia in the 13th century BC).
posted by languagehat at 1:52 PM on August 31, 2006

Recommend the "Age of..." series (Revolution, Capital, Empire) by Eric Hobsbawm. Wikipedia says:
Hobsbawm has written extensively on many subjects as one of Britain's most prominent historians. As a Marxist historiographer he has focused on analysis of the 'dual revolution' (the political French revolution and the industrial British revolution). He sees their effect as a driving force behind the predominant trend towards liberal capitalism today. Another recurring theme in his work has been banditry, a phenomenon that Hobsbawm has tried to place within the confines of relevant societal and historical context thus countering the traditional view of it being a spontaneous and unpredictable form of primitive rebellion.
We read him in a class I took on "The World System" in college, and it was a great place to get started on peeling apart some of the layers that led to the way things are today i.e. maybe this will go back a bit further than you would prefer, but you'll definitely see how the major players of today chose up sides and set up the playing field, so to speak.
posted by idontlikewords at 2:27 PM on August 31, 2006

I know this isn't really what you're asking, but you might take a look at Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War and maybe Herodotus' Histories. These guys are kind of considered the fathers of history and could give you a good foundation for studying written history.
posted by Durin's Bane at 2:59 PM on August 31, 2006

This is not an unbiased history, but I found it to be profoundly interesting when I had the same thoughts as you about the biases inherent to recorded history.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 3:03 PM on August 31, 2006

The degree to which historical books are biased has really been substantially overstated, in this thread and elsewhere. For instance, "history is written by the winners" is not true in any meaningful sense. Yes, popular views of historical events (e.g., American impressions of the 1944 Normandy invasion, the pervasive idea that the battle of Marathon was fought against impossible odds, etc) are very much affected by the cultural influence of the resulting winner. But as far as historical scholarship goes, claiming that all history is one-sided does a grave injustice to thousands of historians who successfully manage to treat a subject fairly. I am not arguing that history is in any way objective (in fact, history is only born out of the collision between primary source materials and the interests, foreknowledge, and background of the historian). Still, it is possible to give accurate and non-tendentious analyses of almost any sufficiently remote historical event. In fact, it is far easier to do this than to do the same for a current event; for instance, the war in Iraq is a polarizing issue for people in 2006, but it would be silly to expect historians in 2506 to be any more emotionally inflamed about it than we are about the Guelfs and Ghibellines.

Scholarly work can usually--but not always--be relied upon to describe a historical event or period accurately in a general sense. Two accounts of the French revolution may give different estimates of the role of the bourgeoisie, but both will probably agree that the Tennis Court Oath took place. It is important, however, to read scholarly work with a good amount of common sense judgement and critical awareness. A study of historiography, even a very basic one, helps you understand patterns of historical thought that are not necessarily obvious--for example, that a Marxist historian would generally (over)emphasize the importance of economic factors, or that a nineteenth-century German historian would valorize the Teutonic tribes.

On the other hand, mass-market books--while often easier and more fun to read--can barely be trusted at all. A mass-market writer (or her editor) is interested in creating a book that will sell (academics usually do not make money from publications themselves), so she will often put in a shocking claim where a more moderate one would have been more appropriate. Even if her book is furnished with some sort of academic apparatus like footnotes and detailed bibliography, it is not as trustworthy as an scholarly one--it lacks peer review, and few readers could be familiar with the sources enough to recognize tinkering. Thus, this apparatus is often just a rhetorical device intended to increase the book's credibility. Ward Churchill--a very, very poor example of an academic/historian, as is Chomsky--was great at milking this effect for all it was worth (this evaluation is not ideological, since I'm on their side of the barricades, but I believe that poor scholarship hurts the cause far more than it helps).
posted by nasreddin at 3:25 PM on August 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

You don't say what nationality you are but googling your not very common name suggests US. Whatever your nationality, your view of pretty well all of those countries will have been conditioned from a young age by the media of your country, your schooling and your peers. Therefore you probably already have some sort of preconceived notion about most of those countries. Accordingly, you should be reading an alternative point of view. For example, on Israel, you should read Edward Said's A Question of Palestine to get the non-Israel viewpoint. On India you should be reading Indian authors and not Brit ones. On Canada read both Quebec and Anglo-Canadian writers. Given that two of those countries are in the axis of evil and a few others not far off, do not read US/UK authors on them.
posted by TheRaven at 4:18 PM on August 31, 2006

Okay, I'll give a minority opinion here. History isn't necessarily so biased. There are a number of historians that make valiant efforts to examine different points of view in putting together history. It's the same that not every essay on any given subject doesn't have to be biased.

That said - the most entertaining histories invite you into their worldview and make it compelling. I recommend that route. The worldview doesn't have to be pendantic and the best authors still considered several sources before arguing for their opinions. I recommend learning history by historians you will enjoy reading and feel you can trust. David McCullough and Lawrence Wright are on the top of my list.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:36 PM on August 31, 2006

To answer the question, here's a list of histories that I'd recommend:

Maurice Meisner, Mao's China and After.
John Keay, India: A History.
Phebe Marr, The Modern History of Iraq.
Andre Maurois, A History of France.
Roger Riendeau, A Brief History of Canada.

More here.

Regarding the existence of unbiased history, I agree with what nasreddin and dances_with_sneetches said. Here's what Orwell had to say:
I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway. I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history COULD be truthfully written. In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that 'facts' existed and were more or less discoverable. And in practice there was always a considerable body of fact which would have been agreed to by almost everyone. If you look up the history of the last war [WWI] in, for instance, the ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA, you will find that a respectable amount of the material is drawn from German sources. A British and a German historian would disagree deeply on many things, even on fundamentals, but there would still be that body of, as it were, neutral fact on which neither would seriously challenge the other.

posted by russilwvong at 6:09 PM on August 31, 2006

I suspect you should read Guns, Germs and Steel to get a perspective on what informs the history of various regions, as well.
posted by anildash at 6:17 PM on August 31, 2006

University level textbooks can be very good. I don't think you will have much problem with bias/slant when looking at history of other places. Why would an American historian want to slant Chinese history? There is no nationalist project to further, as there might be in a PRC textbook (or in an American high school textbook of American history). A historian of China usually loves the country, but I have yet to meet any who do not look at it with a very measured eye. Jonathan Spence has a very readable textbook on China, c1600-2000.

There are more contentious fields - like modern middle east history. But perhaps there you can begin with early modern (c1500-1800) or nineteenth century history (areas which are not so controversial) - you can get a sense of the region, and then use your own judgement and that knowledge when reading about more recent events.
posted by jb at 6:26 PM on August 31, 2006

In response to the idea that there are certain basic ideas that cannot be distorted too far (like the existence of the tennis court oath example), its very important to note, that far beyond the distortion of certain events, there is the issue of emphasis and inclusion. To some historians, a certain event is paramount to understanding the situation and entire volumes are devoted to it, while to others its nothing and is barely worth noting, if even noted at all. This can lead to vastly different understandings and conclusions.

Especially in the field of academic history, there is great disagreement over different interpretations of events, with many authors practically writing back and forth at each other arguing that their interpretation is "correct".

I'll also second Guns, Germs and Steel (by Jared Diamond, author wasn't mentioned before), as at the very least, a fun and interesting read that can really get you thinking in the broadest sense about world history.
posted by teishu at 9:10 PM on August 31, 2006

The OP asked for unbiased history, and the suggestions are Zinn, Chomsky, Hobsbawm, Said, and others of that ilk? Come on.

In terms of actual absence of bias, the people who've suggested encyclopedias and Wikipedia have it right. Get the bare-bone facts, then read a couple more in-depth, detailed, competing interpretations. That's your best bet.
posted by ewiar at 9:39 PM on August 31, 2006

1. Plain factual history is no fun to read. (I can't think of anything more boring than reading an encyclopedia.) The best history is engaged with its subject, has a point of view, and isn't afraid of argument and controversy.
2. Always distrust anyone who claims to be writing 'unbiased' history. The best historians are honest and self-critical, and put their sympathies clearly on display so that the reader can judge.
3. What is 'unbiased' history anyway? Should the history of Christianity be written by atheists? Should the history of America be written by non-Americans? Should the history of Earth be written by Martians? History written by insiders can often be better than history written by outsiders -- because sympathetic understanding is often better than detached neutrality.

OK, now for some recommendations.

E.H. Gombrich's A Little History of the World would be a great book to start with. He wrote it for his children in 1935, but it only came out in English translation last year, to excellent reviews. It is deliberately designed for people with little or no previous knowledge of world history, so would be ideal for you.

For a general survey of modern European history, try Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (2005). (On the issue of 'unbiased' history, by the way, it is interesting to read what Judt says in his introduction: 'Without, I hope, abandoning objectivity and fairness, Postwar offers an avowedly personal interpretation of the recent European past. In a word that has acquired undeservedly pejorative connotations, it is opinionated. Some of its judgements will perhaps be controversial, some will surely prove mistaken. All are fallible.' This strikes me as exactly the right attitude for a historian to take.)

For studies of particular countries:
Germany: Mark Allinson, Germany and Austria 1814-2000 (introductory history written for modern-language students learning German).
Switzerland: Jonathan Steinberg, Why Switzerland? (a classic).
Spain: Raymond Carr, Spain 1808-1975 (the standard history), or Christopher Ross, Spain 1812-1996 (a shorter history).
Italy: Denis Mack Smith, Modern Italy: a Political History (generally said to be the best book in its field).
Ireland: Roy Foster, Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (a work of 'revisionist' history when it first came out, now the accepted orthodoxy; which just shows you how views of history change from generation to generation).

Or if you want something more personal and informal (often a good way of getting into a new subject), you could try:
Germany: Timothy Garton Ash, The File (a historian writes about his surveillance by the East German security services).
Spain: Giles Tremlett, Ghosts of Spain (new book about the country's hidden history).
Italy: Tobias Jones, The Dark Heart of Italy.
These are more journalistic in style, but you can pick up a lot of history by reading them, and they might be worth bearing in mind if you find yourself out of your depth with some of the more scholarly histories I've mentioned above.

I won't offer any recommendations for non-European history, because it's outside my field, but I'll be interested to read other people's suggestions.

One final warning. Despite what other people have said, I would not recommend reading Chomsky, at least until you have read some other books and gained some alternative perspectives. The trouble with Chomsky is that people who start off by reading him often fail to move on to anything else.
posted by verstegan at 1:21 AM on September 1, 2006

What is 'unbiased' history anyway? Should the history of Christianity be written by atheists?

When you are reading a history of Christianity, you should not be able to tell if it was written by a Christian or a non-Christian. And mostly you cannot. Perfect objectivity is a straw man, modern academic historians often come very close to that ideal.
posted by LarryC at 11:18 AM on September 1, 2006

Although I read it many years ago, I remember being really impressed by how balanced One Land, Two Peoples: The Conflict Over Palestine by Deborah J. Gerner was. The earlier chapters, in particular, gave a great historical context. I also remember it being a pretty easy read.
posted by zharptitsa at 8:58 AM on September 2, 2006

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