Deborah Lee-Talbot has reviewed a new book edited by Helen Carr and Suzannah Lipscomb.

Helen Carr and Suzannah Lipscomb (eds), What is History, Now? How the past and the present speak to each other, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2021.

Most of us know the benefits that come from the experience of a good meal, especially a meal that we have prepared. Perhaps this is why, after 60 years, historians continue to employ E.H. Carr’s analogy of the fisherman. In his book What is History? (1961) Carr described the historian as one who collects facts as one would fish; by taking the fish home the historian ‘cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him [sic]’.[1] The appeal of this analogy is Carr’s ability to describe the historian’s creative, complex, intuitive and methodological work in half a sentence.

This analogy’s longevity could also come from the fact that Carr understands that food preferences shift according to religious beliefs, class position, nationalistic feeling, geographical location, and generational positions. Indeed, numerous generations of historians have grappled with Carr’s work. In 1985, What is History Today.? offered an academic account that included six female historians ‘alongside sixty-three male historians. There was only one non-white contributor.’[2] By 2002, a new book, What is History Now?, presented readers with chapters from a more diverse range of contributors. The academic tone present in What is History and What is History Today.? persisted. Nearly two decades later, it seems fitting that historians’ interpretative acts are again under review with a new generation of authors.

With the 2021 publication of What is History, Now?, editors Helen Carr and Suzannah Lipscomb have produced a volume in which accessibility is the core ingredient. They argue from the outset ‘that history belongs to us all’. [3] Helen Carr, grand-daughter of E.H. Carr, explains to readers that this book intended ‘to prove … that history can be flexible, malleable, colourful and without bias – that history is, above all, interpretation’.[4] What follows represents the current generation of academic and professional historians. The chapters provide a smorgasbord of historic themes and topics for those who cannot quite decide what they are in the mood to consume—looking for something with a cosmopolitan flavour? The histories of empire, global connections, and East Asia, are on the table. Perhaps some intellectual comfort food? Discussions regarding family history, the value of museums, and ancient history may be more to your liking. Can we tempt your intellectual tastebuds with something different? Try the chapters regarding diversity in Tudor England while also sampling Indigenous, women’s and queer histories.

A standout chapter is Jaipreet Virdi’s ‘How can we write the history of disability?’ Virdi quickly established parameters for a discussion that centres disabled individuals and communities by greeting readers with a quote from the Australian disability activist Stella Young- ‘I really think that this lie that we’ve been sold about disability is the greatest injustice’.[5] As Virdi asserts, ‘[e]xamining history through disabled people, rather than the perspectives of able-bodied society, moves us away from the medical gaze and challenges tropes of how disabled people are represented’.[6] Virdi urges readers to recognise that history is rarely thematically pure, as discussions concerning disability can link into the histories of science, technological innovation, politics, gender, and trade.

Like a good meal, the conversations with friends afterwards provided the best experience from reading this book. Maya Jasanoff’s ‘How can we write the history of empire?’ prompted a fantastic conversation with my academic colleagues about the era of empire and whether imperialism has genuinely ended, or whether the language with which we discuss oppressive actions been the only thing to change. During these discussions, I understood this was a book designed, both in structure and in content, for engagement. The book is relatively lightweight and easy to transport in paperback format, and the pages are good enough for grey lead pencil annotations, but not pen ink which will bleed through the page. These factors make What is History, Now? an interactive text.

Has the book realised the ambitions of Carr and Lipscomb? As an Australian-Pacific historian, I found that the text seemed focused on the Northern hemisphere. Moments that discussed the disruption of mainstream history were often related to examples concerning the National Trust 2020 report release, the fall of colonial statues, especially Colston, and the destruction of British colonial documents in the archives. Because of this repetition, I did ponder more than once what academic and professional historians in Oceania would write. Would the Stolen Generations, Pacific Island labour schemes in the region from the nineteenth century to the present, the lack of funding for the National Archives of Australia, and overfunding for Australia’s War Memorial be the core examples? 

The revered chef and curious traveller Anthony Bourdain once argued that we take what is served to us in any moment as ‘when someone’s offering you food, they’re telling you a story’. What Is History, Now? takes E.H Carr’s definition of history as its base ingredient for the stories these historians choose to tell. As adherents of Clio, each generation of historians is charged with prompting others to engage critically with the past. Therefore, I recommend this book for tutors seeking to provoke critical thinking in their students or for general readers – already curious about the potential of history – to better understand the methodologies at play. Ultimately, Lipscomb and Carr’s editing shows diversity in history. It is contentious, diverse, intimate, and public, a space that contains gatekeepers and anarchists. The past is what we choose to make of it.

[1] H Carr & S Lipscomb, ‘Prologue: Ways In’, What is History, Now?, H Carr & S Lipscomb (eds), London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021, , p. 1.

[2] Carr and Lipscomb, ‘Prologue: Ways In’, p. 12.

[3] Carr and Lipscomb, ‘Prologue: Ways In’, p. 12.

[4] Carr and Lipscomb, ‘Prologue: Ways In’, p. 15.

[5] J Virdi, ‘How can we write the history of disability?’ in What Is History, Now?, H Carr & S Lipscomb (eds), London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021, pp. 116–133 (p. 116).

[6] Virdi, pp. 116–133 (p. 118).



Deborah Lee-Talbot
Deborah Lee-Talbot

Deborah Lee-Talbot is a historian fascinated by Pacific histories, especially issues of materiality, religion, gender, and archives. These interests are currently being expressed, with financial support from a scholarship at Deakin University, in her PhD thesis – Kaleidoscopic archives: finding feminist histories in the Pacific records of the Australian Joint Copying Project. Deborah is also the owner/operator of Colourful Histories and is on the committee of management with the Professional Historians Association (Vic. & Tas.) as Publications Editor. She is a casual volunteer with the Langi Morgala Museum (Ararat, Victoria), researching, processing and caring for the Pacific Collection there.