three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
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The Uses and Abuses of History

A-Dangerous GamesCanadian historian Margaret MacMillan divides her time between St. Antony's College, Oxford, and the University of Toronto. She is the author of several works of history, including the award-winning Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World ( 4 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2003), a fascinating analysis of the fateful months following World War I, and Nixon and Mao: The Week That changed the World ( 4 of 5 Stars May/June 2007).

The Topic: Henry Ford infamously declared it "bunk." George Santayana lamented its seemingly cyclical nature. History, according to Margaret MacMillan, is "a pool, sometimes benign, often sulfurous, that lies under the present, silently shaping our institutions, our ways of thought, our likes and dislikes." Arguing that much of recorded history is tainted by nationalistic and religious prejudices, she claims that citizens unaware of its shortcomings are easily manipulated by less-than-scrupulous leaders. The solution, she says, lies in the hands of professional historians, who should rescue the field from amateurs and begin writing for the general public instead of academia. "If the study of history does nothing more than teach us humility, skepticism and awareness of ourselves," explains MacMillan, "then it has done something useful."
Modern Library. 188 pages. $22. ISBN: 9780679643586

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"'These days,' the Russians like to say, 'we live in a country with an unpredictable past.' This droll paradox could well stand as the thesis for Margaret MacMillan's Dangerous Games, a provocative little book about the shifting meanings and applications of history, its dangerous uses and abuses, which often seem to be one and the same." David Walton

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Dangerous Games is a frequently mordant and consistently provocative indictment of the myriad ways in which history as a way of understanding the world is too often distorted, politicized and badly mishandled. ... It is among the many virtues of MacMillan's succinct yet substantial book that she demonstrates how every country struggles with history in its own way." David M. Kennedy

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In her lively little book, MacMillan writes an extended essay really, on the uses and abuses of history. ... In short, handle with care." Alan Cate

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"What goes unmentioned in MacMillan's otherwise astute analysis is the trend among professional historians to view the past through whatever contemporary lens they find most congenial. ... Dangerous Games would be an even better book had she placed this issue squarely on the table." Jonathan Yardley

Denver Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"MacMillan seems to have forgotten how important it is to envelop the reader inside a story and instead delivers to us a compelling treatise on the perversions and distortions that infiltrate much of written history. ... Her desire to put the authority back in the hands of 'professional historians' is disheartening and seems at odds with the evidence presented in her book." Elaine Margolin

Critical Summary

In this compelling, persuasive treatise, MacMillan investigates the innumerable ways that history has been twisted, embellished, and politicized to serve one purpose or another throughout, well, history. Based on a series of lectures delivered at the University of Western Ontario, Dangerous Games details MacMillan's expert analyses and arguments, presented in her incisive, witty prose. Critics praised MacMillan's reasoning, even if they did not always agree with her proposed solutions. For example, her appeal to leave history to the "professional historians" rankled the critics who believe that amateurs add energy and relevance to the field. Others pointed out that professionals are not without their own biases. Despite these complaints, MacMillan's balanced defense of the importance of the study of history is eloquent and timely.