British History for Dummies by Seán Lang, PhD

When introducing someone to a new field of study, the “For Dummies” series is usually a safe bet.  This one’s no exception.  Overviews like this are designed specifically to get people up to a conversational level or perhaps as a means to brush up on a topic that might already be familiar.  In this case, it’s a bit of a mixed bag for me, but it served its purpose.  My Dad and I listened to this on our road trip.  For him, it’s completely new territory until we hit WWII, at which point he has a good grasp of the history.  He found it hard to follow, but not entirely impossible, and I’ll cover the reasons why shortly.  As someone with heavy interest in the Medieval and Renaissance eras but weaker on everything between the British Civil War and the start of the Victorian era, I found that I got a pretty good grasp on what I was missing, but on the bits I know so well, I could tell what was missing, what was purely speculation based on author biases, and what was dead wrong in an effort to simply glaze over certain aspects.  Thankfully, this last issue was few and far between, but there’s nothing more aggravating than knowing you can call out a PhD.  That is the point of a PhD, after all.  You’re supposed to be an expert to the point where every sentence you say can be counted upon as fact.  But hey, we’re all human, and everyone’s got their biases.  There was nothing in here that was so abominably wrong as to make my eyes twitch, save for perhaps a blatant misunderstanding of Shakespeare.  Seriously, man, have you ever read the Bard?  I’m a blundering novice on his work, and I can already run rings around this guy.  *shrug*

The way this book is presented, it’s mostly chronological from the prehistoric era to modern times, and just as the title says, it’s all about Britain.  To the author’s credit, he means the whole of Britain, not just England.  Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland play big parts.  Ireland plays into it, of course, just as France, Germany, and so many other countries, but only in relation to the British-centric version of history that’s presented here.  By “mostly chronological,” what I mean is that the author sometimes backtracks or directly spoils future through-lines in an effort to track a specific subject matter.  For example, when speaking of the Victorian era and of Empire, he backtracks to Empire building in the time of Richard II and summarizes that entire thread, bringing the topic back up to where he left off.  He does this with all manner of categories.  That’s part of what my Dad found it difficult to grasp, being wholly unfamiliar with the royal lines, the geography, and some of the concepts in play.  And I don’t blame him.  I’d be lost too, if I weren’t so familiar with it.  As I explained to him, this sort of book gets you to ask more questions than it answers.  From there, you get other books that focus more on what your questions are about, and then eventually you just find some mammoth series like Durant’s The Story of Civilization to help you put everything into proper perspective.

As a toe dip into the water, I think this book hits its target nicely.  Even when skipping around, it does keep its focus, so while it might not be as easy to keep track of names and dates, it is easier to keep track of threads of progress across centuries.  It’s not just a book of royals, though they certainly play their parts.  There’s also science, industry, and culture put forth here, in perspective.  And there’s a sense of humor about the presentation.  If you’re looking to read this one, I hope you like puns.  The author certainly does.

3 stars

3 thoughts on “British History for Dummies by Seán Lang, PhD

  1. The “For Dummies” series is great to have a first look at something but as you say it always leaves more questions than answers. Tho, with a history book, that’s almost always the case with me and is what makes it such an interesting subject. 😀

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  2. Pingback: Irish History for Dummies by Mike Cronin, PhD | Knight of Angels

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