Bunkmail’s “Best American History Reads” and public engagement

The most recent “Bunkmail” offers up a list of “Best American History Reads of 2018.” It’s a remarkable collection of, by my count, sixty-one publicly-engaged essays, visualizations, or even bibliographies on topics ranging from Trump (of course) to historic preservation.

It’s not clear to me how many of the authors cited in that list are academic historians engaging the public, though I certainly recognize many of the names, or how many are journalists writing about historical topics. But it does seem clear that the tired old story that historians don’t engage with public audiences and that public audiences don’t engage with history is put to rest by collections like Bunk’s and the #everythinghasahistory hashtag popularized by Jim Grossman, or by the frequency with which historians write for venues like The Atlantic or the Washington Post’s Made by History blog, to say nothing of the public engagement that goes on in museums and classrooms. My own take is that the reason this worn-out idea sticks around is not because historians aren’t engaging with public audiences, though we could certainly do more. Rather the problem is that at least some public audiences don’t want the hard-to-swallow interpretations historians offer in place of the spoonful-of-sugar myths about American history that they’ve been fed.

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