In Defence of Boring Books - 6 minutes read

In December, the press – this magazine included – was full of recommendations of the best history books published during the preceding year. Simultaneously, I was asking candidates for undergraduate admission what was the most interesting history book they had read, and why? Reading is increasingly passé, especially among the young; dispiritingly few had read anything much. Only one mentioned a book published in 2023. But it occurred to me as I repeated the question that a more revealing one might be: what is the most boring history book you have read, and why?

Of course, if you have not read many – or indeed any – history books, then you will not have acquired the frame of reference which might enable you to judge. To be capable of nominating anything would in itself mark out a candidate as exceptional. But for older lags, with decades of reading under their belts, it is a question which provokes amused, even fond, nostalgia for hours of almost narcotic tedium endured in years gone by – a pleasurable wallowing in historiographical Oblomovism. (Ilya Ilyich Oblomov is the hero of Goncharov’s eponymous novel, whose only satisfaction in life lies in his own stupefied boredom with it.)

Responses to my inquiries of colleagues and others provide insights into their intellectual preferences and foibles. It was nevertheless surprising how often the same types of work, sometimes even the same titles, were offered up.

One category is monographs on subjects which the reader found tedious, but was obliged to read in order to write an undergraduate essay. An example is John Brooke’s The Chatham Administration, 1766-1768 (1956), a work in which, rather like Oblomov, absolutely nothing of any interest happens. That appears to be its point. Another is Eileen Power’s The Wool Trade in Medieval English History (1941). But my favourite is J.Z. Titow’s Winchester Yields: A Study in Medieval Agricultural Productivity (1972), which includes pages of tables of seed ratios, calculated from the records of the estates of the bishop of Winchester in the high Middle Ages.

Yet in these instances, and others of their kind, one has to accept that the fault may lie in the reader, that historians of a different cast of mind find the research interesting. One historian’s meat can be another’s poison. Remorseless detail might in itself be a mark of intellectual quality: when the Anglo-Saxonist James Campbell told a doctoral candidate that his thesis was ‘really boring’, the candidate had to be reassured that this was not criticism, but high praise. A doctoral thesis was meant to be boring. The great historian of Roman law John Crook claimed that he once so bored himself with the lecture he was delivering that he fell asleep momentarily part way through – and woke as his knees buckled.

It was another type of study which elicited the same titles over and over again: the broad survey volume favoured by commissioning editors in the 1950s and 1960s. Such works, written by renowned authorities, were conceived as superior textbooks. They were primarily designed for an undergraduate readership but were often also used in schools where basic A-Level textbooks were despised. Even specialists might from time to time quietly consult them to check facts. And in those far off days, there was the prospect of attracting that now very rare bird, the general reader – the sort of person who relished the higher order stimulation of the Oxford History of England.

An example is H.H. Scullard’s From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome 133 BC to AD 68 (1959). It contains all the basic information one needs for the period. But the material is presented so densely, dispassionately and un-analytically that it is impossible to absorb more than a few pages at a time. Paradoxically, the book can scarcely be used for the purpose for which it was written. Much the same is true of Frank Barlow’s The Feudal Kingdom of England, 1042-1216 (1955), a good seller in its day, and comprehensive in its coverage, but a work in which it is impossible to detect any sustained line of argument. Or take Asa Briggs’ The Age of Improvement, 1783-1867 (1959), the very title of which expresses the vague, bland, unreflective assumption of secular progress which informs the whole book. However, the hands-down winner in the popular ‘vote’ was Dorothy Marshall’s Eighteenth Century England, 1714-1784 (1962), a work by which all those who cited it confessed they had been defeated within a few pages. There was no hostility or resentment. There was even a certain bemused affection. But there was also unanimity.

Why is it that these distinguished historians should have proved incapable of writing arrestingly about the periods they knew so well? I suspect that the answer lies in the imperative of comprehensive coverage. The authors felt obliged to survey events in each and every conventional field and to include a wealth of narrative detail. The consequence was that the analytical bite evident in other works by them was blunted, indeed in most cases entirely lost. The books might therefore be deemed to have been a waste of their very capable authors’ energies. But in fact, by inflicting such excruciating boredom on their readers, they performed an inestimable service. They provoked the more able into realising that this was the antithesis of what had attracted them to history, and into looking elsewhere for stimulus. For those who are not soulmates of Oblomov, boredom can prove a spur to reflection, and even to action.

This stultifying genre has largely faded away with the decline in reading. A-Level textbooks are now far shorter, full of pictures and certainly not written by established historians. Candidates know that their primary task is simply to regurgitate the book in the examination. If they were bored for longer, perhaps they might be moved to read more widely and creatively.

A first step would be for the Christmas lists of notable books published in the preceding year to introduce a new category: most boring history book. Who knows? In future years it might become as hotly contested and perversely coveted as the annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award.


George Garnett is Professor of Medieval History at Oxford University, Fellow of St Hugh’s College and the author of The Norman Conquest in English History: Volume I: A Broken Chain? (Oxford University Press, 2021).

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