For the most part, history comes in book form. You can learn a lot from good documentaries, recorded lectures, and the like, but the main medium for communicating history remains the bodies of trees. Sorting the good history books from the bad can take some doing. For the most part, I find good ones by figuring out a standard survey text and then digging into the footnotes. My intensive study of nineteenth century America began in the citations of Battle Cry of Freedom. Books that appear often, especially if they’re cited in other good books, usually deserve a look. Over time, one builds up a sense for this sort of thing.
Gentle Readers, mine failed me. I picked up a used copy of Stephen Puleo’s The Caning: The Assault that Drove America to Civil War. It concerns the Brook-Sumner affair, wherein Preston Brooks of South Carolina breaks his gutta-percha cane over the head of Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Sumner was seriously hurt and absent from the Senate for a few years after. I got it a few months back and just had occasion to open it up over the last few days.
Puleo is an engaging writer, sometime you get to appreciate more the more you read academic prose. I probably kept on with him longer than I might otherwise have because of that, but I quit him all the same. This might sound like a silly reason, but I needed the footnotes. Puleo has none. At first I thought he might have declined to annotate the prologue, which mostly involves scene-setting. One must make judgment calls in these things. Then I noticed he would make direct quotes and not note them. The first few chapters came and went without a single number in superscript.
At this point, I had my worries. But books on the caning don’t come around often and his came most recently. I talked myself into continuing for a while longer, though I found myself less and less able to trust him. I don’t know that Puleo wrote anything but good, solid history. His might deserve a place of pride as the standard work on the subject. But given the total lack of footnotes, or even informal indications of where he drew quotes for the most part, I have no way to tell. I enjoy only very limited access to academic journals, but I went looking for reviews all the same. I couldn’t find any, not even to say Puleo had done an awful job and scholars should avoid the book. That did it; I have too many history books I want to read, and which might serve as springboards for further research, to spend more time with this one.
I told you all of that so I could tell you this. There are many ways to find solid histories to read. One of the best, even if you don’t intend to use them as a guide to future research, is to check for footnotes and endnotes. Scholars use, and sometimes misuse, them for professional accountability. Their presence doesn’t mean you’ve got a solid work for sure, but point to at least a serious effort toward one. If something does seem dubious to you, they give you the ability to look it up. Does that quote have ellipses in a place that looks odd? It should be cited and in principle you can go find the original. Absent the notes, who knows what really went on? Maybe everything remained above-board, maybe not. You just don’t know, unless you’ve had the good fortune to have read the same sources and remember them well.
Bad books can have footnotes too, of course. A relative layperson on the subject, a category which often includes your author, might have trouble telling a good footnote from a bad one. The other signs I look for don’t make for infallible indicators either, or I would just use them, but here are two other ways to know if you likely have a solid history on your hands.
Check the publisher. A well-known university press makes a strong point in favor of a book. Popular presses can and do release good history, even doing peer review, but academic publishers exist for that job. They will still produce poor works now and then, as one must expect from institutions run by humans, but in general one can read with greater confidence.
If you can get the book in hands, or look at an Amazon preview, then you can hopefully flip to the acknowledgements. Every author will thank family members, editors, and the like, but check for archivists and other historians. In the second case, thanks given to big names in the field should carry some extra weight but any known good authority counts for something.
Failing all these, you can try the author blurb. This takes you well into the realm of promotional text, but they rarely lie about the author’s professional affiliations. If they teach at a university, the blurb will surely tell you. If they don’t, then it might say who they studied under and/or list their degree. These don’t count as the strongest indicators, but they beat nothing.
It bears repeating that none of this guarantees finding a solid work, but they do help when it comes time to browse the shelves.