As I wrote yesterday, that group is different from the many types of history buffs. Sure, buffs might buy some of those bestselling books, but they (we) will also buy $75 university-press or out-of-print titles on the topics they study. Buffs aren’t afraid of footnotes as “the public” supposedly is. Buffs don’t need the narrative structure that I think the general public looks for. [I’ll get to that topic someday.]
If buffs watch history documentaries on cable television, it’s usually to spot friends in the slow-motion footage of historic reenactments and then to complain about the simplification and sensationalism. Academic historians might lament the public’s knowledge when they teach the freshman survey course, but so do buffs who volunteer at reenactments and historic sites.
An academic historian watching the H.B.O. miniseries John Adams might say:
The smallpox inoculation scenes showing Abigail and the children alone in their house—with no sign of the servants, the extended family, or the trip to a hospital in Boston—are an anachronistic reflection of America’s post-WW2 idea of domesticity centered on the nuclear family.A history buff might say:
They showed Henry Knox hauling the cannon from Springfield to Cambridge by way of Quincy! And when he went past the Adams farm, he wasn’t even headed in the right direction!And members of “the public” might say:
Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney were so good—the whole story made me want to watch Lincoln!Okay, I’m purveying broad stereotypes here. But my point is that academic and historians and history buffs are allies in the struggle for solid sources and accurate information. Individuals may vary widely in their interests, knowledge, and level of analysis, but the basic effort is similar. Therefore, assessing the public through contact with buffs is a mistake.
Unfortunately, there aren‘t enough professionals, and buffs to make history books into bestsellers. For that, a book also has to connect with “the public.”