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The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History

3.88  ·  Rating Details  ·  204 Ratings  ·  27 Reviews
Reflections on the historian's craft and its place in American culture, from a master craftsman

History is to society what memory is to the individual: without it, we don't know who we are, and we can't make wise decisions about where we should be going. But while the nature of memory is a constant, the nature of history has changed radically over the past forty years, fo
Hardcover, 323 pages
Published March 13th 2008 by Penguin Press HC, The (first published March 1st 2008)
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Mar 02, 2009 Jessica rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: newt gingrich and other adults
Recommended to Jessica by: brian gottlieb, who else
Growing up is really funny. A lot of the surprise of it for me has been in realizing my enemies are not who I thought they were. Do you know what I mean? When you're a kid, it's all so clear who you despise and who are your friends, but when you get older you finally stop and look around and realize the people you trust and admire the most haven't even heard of your favorite bands, and that the two of you would never have spoken to each other at age fifteen. And today there's a new set of evils ...more
Feb 18, 2009 brian rated it really liked it
Recommended to brian by: erik simon
gordon wood is the greatest living historian and one of the top living essayists. for some reason there’s a hardcover version on amazon for $18 and then the same edition for only $6.99.

order this! trust me. if you’ve ever wondered about the relative nature of history, about the (im)possibility of truth, the relationship between ideas and revolution, the stupidity of the far left, the stupidity of the far right, the perils and/or necessity of american excep
Melissa Madrid
May 27, 2008 Melissa Madrid rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: non-scholars with a scholarly interest in American history
This is a volume of reviews, all previously published in the New York Review of Books and another magazine, of books on American history. Its author is a prominent historian in his own right, and the pleasure of the read is both in the insightful historiography and in the historical content. Like reading any good book reviews, you learn not only about the books reviewed but also about their subject matter.

Yet Wood is also a crusader against post-modernism and an advocate of good, old-fashioned n
Nov 26, 2015 Don rated it really liked it
Gordon S. Wood is godfather of the academics and hero of the popular writers, and for good reason.

He really knows everything he writes about, and he writes it really well.

More than anyone else, he can call B.S. on them. Any of them. He name drops like TMZ, decodes complex arguments like Robert Langdon, and writes it with an obsidian scalpel. All the while, he seems to view history as an ongoing game of Jeopardy ("I'll take Heuristic Approaches to Analyzing Scottish influencers of the Founders, f
Dec 31, 2008 Matt rated it it was amazing
Unusual and ingenious treatise on historiography. This book is actually a collection of book reviews, each focusing not only on the book itself, but on a different historiographical issue or trend (microhistory, multicultural history, postmodern history, myth, presentism, to name a few).

Wood's mastery of the material and his congenial style made this so very enjoyable. Having the subject books there as examples grounds his presentation of the abstract concepts (and alerted me to some good sugges
Aug 16, 2008 Matt rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Anybody who crusades against post-modernism is a fan of mine. I find it interesting how what, to a naive reader like myself, seems to be a straightforward historical book, inherently has a philosophical or intellectual bias. History is certainly more than just names and dates because narrative or interpretation always accompanies those names and facts. But narration and interpretation are inherently biased in some way, towards one perspective or another (or so it seems). Maybe this bias is unint ...more
Mar 06, 2009 Bruce rated it really liked it
This is a collection of Wood's book reviews over the years.
Jane Wetzel
Mar 01, 2016 Jane Wetzel rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
It is interesting. I would have gleaned more from it if I had a larger vocabulary. Yet there is always something to learn from such a book. I like liked the way Gordon Wood critiqued the authors of historical books, bringing out the fact that even the well-educated can err in the way they interpret historical facts. It is sad to think how people can twist a truth, or say that, because there is no tangible evidence in their hands, they do not believe what they read or hear. It would be a good boo ...more
Howard Mansfield
Jan 30, 2014 Howard Mansfield rated it liked it
In this collection of his long reviews for The New York Review of Books and other magazines, the noted historian Gordon S. Wood gets to the heart of each book he considers. His particular gift, besides his clear prose, is setting the book in the context of the debates and fashions that have swept the history profession. He does this without burdening us with the word “historiography,” or dragging us through any of the nastiness of academic trench warfare. Wood is fair and generous; he’s not afra ...more
Aug 26, 2013 Bob rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Gordon S Wood is certainly among the most distinguished American historians studying the period of the Revolution and early years of the American republic. Pre-GoodReads, I read his Empire of Liberty in the Oxford History of the United States, a wonderful read and an intellectual tour de force.

This book is a reflection on the work of historians comprised of review articles appearing from 1981 to 2007, mostly in The New York Times Review of Books and in The New Republic. A fundamental thread runn
Sep 11, 2009 John rated it really liked it
This book is actually a collection of book reviews that Gordon Wood has written over the past 30 years. The books reviewed are history, usually written by academic historians, and they usually are dealing with colonial America and the Revolutionary period (Wood’s own area of expertise). In these reviews he delves deeply into what the study of history is, what it strives to be, and what it can never be. It is a fascinating collection and it is one that I wish I had been exposed to many years ago ...more
Sep 02, 2013 Johnp rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, 2013, history
Gordon Wood has developed an interesting way to survey a wide collection of historical scholarship. This book collects 21 of Wood’s book reviews and presents them to the reader, with additional narratives from Wood (and sometimes rebuttals from the original author!)

These reviews cover a wide range of historical literature and are grouped according to the aim of the book (History as fiction, narrative history, etc).

A few things stand out after just the first few chapters. First, Wood has a very d
Christine Henry
Jul 25, 2009 Christine Henry rated it really liked it
This book is a collection of essays that were originally published as book reviews in various publications by Gordon Wood, a renown historian as well as critic. Each review was thoughtfully selected to illustrate a trend or new approach in the craft of history writing that has developed over the past 30 years. While for the most part, I did not agree with his assessments of the dangers of the biases that he so eloquently elucidates in each reviewed piece, I really enjoyed the intellectual analys ...more
Dec 30, 2010 Sean rated it really liked it
This is an excellent collection of book reviews dealing with early American history. The author believes that some close approximation of impartiality is possible when writing history (notwithstanding postmodern claims to the contrary) and that it is the job of the historian to write about the past as accurately as possible. His reviews are enjoyable because he critiques the historical accuracy - or lack thereof - of each book, while also explaining how that particular work fits into the larger ...more
Jun 07, 2010 Lobstergirl marked it as to-read
Shelves: own, historiography
I skimmed through parts of this quickly at the bookstore and it bears further examination. It's a collection of Wood's reviews of various American history books for publications like The New York Review of Books, New Republic, and others. Some of these are probably still available free online; some are behind a subscription firewall. The nice thing here is that he gives each review an afterward that says stuff like, "Simon Schama was furious at me after this review but I still think he's a wonde ...more
Jun 03, 2009 Jim rated it really liked it
Shelves: kindle
Oddly enough, the introduction to Gordon S. Wood’s The Purpose of the Past is the highlight of the book. The work itself is a collection of reviews of various book reviews over the past few decades that illustrate Wood's assessment of what faults lie in most historians' approach to history.

The introduction is one of the most amazingly succinct and accurate portrayals of what is wrong in history as a discipline today. Somehow we as historians have become so mired in micro-specialties that while
Gabriel Oak
Jun 09, 2014 Gabriel Oak rated it did not like it
This was a book group pick, and I really disliked it. For one thing, who thought it would be a good idea to publish a collection of book reviews? What if, like me, you've only read one or two of the twenty+ books reviewed? Setting that issue aside, however, Wood comes off like a historian version of Andy Rooney, complaining incessantly about the state of contemporary history writing. Kids these days...
Jan 26, 2010 Rick rated it really liked it
This was an interesting book by Gordon Wood that analyzes the different types of historical approaches throughout the last few decades. His reviews are well written, to the point, and often fairly harsh. He is in some ways the Simon Cowell of judging his peers. His comments sometimes seem harsh and anger the historian being reviewed but I find myself agreeing with him with each review. I enjoy narrative history and well written history written by non academics. I think that history went through ...more
Jan 30, 2011 Christopher rated it it was amazing
I'm a fan of Wood's conventional historical writing, but found this collection of essays especially interesting and rewarding. This book forced me to think about what historical writing is (and isn't) at a deeper, more critical level than I've done since earning my BA in History. This book should be mandatory reading for all History degree seekers, and would also benefit the average person who feels bombarded with false (by design or otherwise) historical references, analogies, and archetypes by ...more
Aug 04, 2011 Elise rated it it was ok
It was interesting. More than just reviews on books, the author and historian himself, discusses how we look at history and the different ways it is portrayed. I love the Liberty Valance quote, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." It is so true to what many people believe happened in the past. We think of events and people in todays terms when it is kind of unfair for them. I learned that Sourjorna Truth was a maid in a crazy cult house, that was the most interesting book review.
Sep 08, 2009 David marked it as to-read
"Much of the book concentrates on 'presentism', wherein historians and others attempt to use the past for purposes of the present and in the process occasionally distort the past in serious ways." -- Washington Post Book World, 8 Dec 08, "Best of 2008"
José Angel
Jan 05, 2014 José Angel rated it it was amazing
Good for grad seminar on how to do book reviews...
Oct 20, 2009 Janet rated it it was amazing
A well-chosen collection of Wood's reviews published over the past two decades. Through his choices, Wood summarizes recent historigraphical debates. A great summary for a history Ph.d student preparing for oral exams.
James Tracy
May 23, 2011 James Tracy rated it really liked it
Wood uses the occasion of the book review to expound on the various ways that history can be used and abused (frequently the latter). Thus book is methodologically rich but carries along with elegant and highly readable prose.
Sep 01, 2008 Ed rated it really liked it
Gordon Wood is an intellectual giant in my view. The essays in this book, most of which have been previously published, constitute all that I know about the topics under discussion.
Mar 11, 2011 Mscout rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: class, history
Only attempt if you are seriously ready to get your history geek on.
Feb 05, 2011 Joshua rated it liked it
Shelves: read-some-of
Chapter 10
Louis Augeri
Louis Augeri marked it as to-read
Jul 28, 2016
Chris Newton
Chris Newton marked it as to-read
Jul 28, 2016
Ccmoore rated it it was amazing
Jul 27, 2016
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Gordon S. Wood is Professor of History at Brown University. He received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for History for The Radicalism of the American Revolution and the 1970 Bancroft Prize for The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 .
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“Intellectual activity in a culture is not a one-way flow between the great minds and passive recipients; it is a discourse, a complex marketplace-like conglomeration of intellectual exchanges involving many participants all trying to manipulate the ideas available to them in order to explain, justify, lay blame for, or otherwise make sense of what is happening around them. Everyone, not just the great minds, participates in this complicated process.” 1 likes
“Realizing the extent to which people in the past struggled with circumstances that they scarcely understood is perhaps the most important insight flowing from historical study. To understand the past in all its complexity is to acquire historical wisdom and humility and indeed a tragic sense of life. A tragic sense does not mean a sad or pessimistic sense of life; it means a sense of the limitations of life.” 0 likes
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