A Week in Books

Heavyweight history - is it a knock-out?
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The Independent Culture

Publishers never do anything by halves. This autumn, emboldened by a few hit blockbusters and high-rating TV shows, they want us all to buy the sort of doorstop historical works that will come in handy as building material should their charms ever pall. Big History started its return to the lists several seasons ago; now, great slabs of the past seem to be depleting the Nordic forests. Is this year-zero, millennial stock-taking? A counter-attack on "dumbed -down" culture? Or a shrewd move for a time when David Starkey's Elizabeth on C4 can outperform Friends?

Publishers never do anything by halves. This autumn, emboldened by a few hit blockbusters and high-rating TV shows, they want us all to buy the sort of doorstop historical works that will come in handy as building material should their charms ever pall. Big History started its return to the lists several seasons ago; now, great slabs of the past seem to be depleting the Nordic forests. Is this year-zero, millennial stock-taking? A counter-attack on "dumbed -down" culture? Or a shrewd move for a time when David Starkey's Elizabeth on C4 can outperform Friends?

All of the above, plus the kind of gambler's optimism that pervades publishing - only a couple of these huge tomes can hit the jackpot, so let them be mine! Anyway, we've already had John MacNeill on the ecological history of the 20th century, and Richard Vinen arrives this week with his view of modern Europe as A History in Fragments. Forthcoming perspectives will range from the city (Peter Ackroyd's London) and the job (Peter Hennessy's The Prime Minister) to the intellectual movement (Roy Porter's Enlightenment), the limited period (Michael Burleigh's The Third Reich), the nation (Simon Schama's History of Britain, with an epic BBC TV series), even the planet, in Felipe Fernández-Armesto's Civilizations and Clive Ponting's A World History.

More power (and readers) to these erudite elbows. Yet one thing bothers me. This glut looks suspiciously like an upscale version of the Chick Lit boom. One high-profile, HoneyMoon-style failure, and wide-angle history might be bunk again for publishers. So enjoy this lot while you can.

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