Stories vs arguments


Like footsteps across the snow, a good story asks us to follow along. It makes us want to follow along. What comes next? What’s out there just beyond the horizon? For a writer, it’s the most important thing, to have a willing and eager reader.

I recently did a brief Q and A about my water project with the NEH which is now online with a few other similar interviews with other Public Scholar awardees. Pretty much all of us mention the challenge of doing good history while also telling a good story. This makes me wonder: are story and historical argument (ie claims backed up by evidence) really in opposition, as we seem to be suggesting?

Story clearly trumps argument when it comes to holding the attention of most readers. I’d include professional historians in that group, as well. So story has to come first. But story without argument seems to lack backbone, not merely the kind of structure that organizes a story, but also a reason to care more deeply than mere suspense. Argument—whether implicit or explicit—is why some stories stay with us, and others, no matter how gripping they are as we read them, fade.

Still, I think story deserves to come first and stay first. This is not merely a question of seducing the reader (though that is important) but of revealing the meaningfulness of a piece of history. A gripping story makes us feel it is important. A good argument, artfully conveyed, proves that it is.

Image credit: Male polar bear tracks, Cape Lisburne in the distance, Chukchi Sea, 2008. Craig Perham/USFWS

Good things

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This news isn’t exactly new, since I received it over the summer, but it’s worth sharing since it is a Very Good Thing. I am very happy to have been chosen as one of 36 recipients of the inaugural Public Scholar grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Now I have to live up to the intended purpose of the grant: to promote the writing of ‘popular’ scholarly books.

I am hoping to do that, with a topic that is of more interest (I also hope) than even Isaac Newton, the history of how scientists have studied the waters of the globe. This means glaciers, ocean waves, eddies and currents, and the invisible water vapor in the atmosphere (the strongest greenhouse gas of them all). I’ll try to keep things updated here on how I’m progressing. This coming week I’m looking forward to attending a conference at the Royal Society on ocean trace element chemistry.

The photograph above was taken by Charles Piazzi Smyth in 1856 atop a volcanic peak on the island of Tenerife during an expedition to prove that mountain astronomy was possible, desirable and even, occasionally, fun.

‘A bibliographic thriller’

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That’s what The Newton Papers is according to Stuart Kelly in The Scotsman, as well as a ‘brilliant biography of Newton and how his reputation has changed over the centuries’ which is a ‘delight to read.’

He also suggests I write an old-fashioned biography of Newton–a flattering if also alarming suggestion. The deeper point behind the suggestion–that the book raises questions about who Newton really was (and what, for example, his 1693 mental breakdown was all about) that it leaves unanswered–is a fair one. The appetite to understand Newton is what the book is about, after all, and I wish I’d had room to include more about Newton himself in addition to the story of how Newton has been understood through his papers. But if there’s one thing I know since writing this book, it’s just how easy it is to lose oneself in the story of Newton, and just how hard it is to settle the matter of who he was once and for all.