18 March 2008

Reader Response, Polls, Goals

Patriots and Peoples has been online nearly four months. Initially I thought to create a public notebook along the lines of the notebooks I’ve filled much of the past twenty years. These are the simple spiral bound sort in which I take notes on my reading, write drafts of future articles, create bibliographies of books and articles to read, and even pen the occasional poem. Sometimes the writing is of a personal nature, sometimes it takes an objective tone. I conceived Patriots and Peoples as a focused continuation of this practice in a new format, one that is readily shared.

I quickly realized that the nature of a public blog discourages writing that is too rough—and much of that in my stack of spiral bound notebooks is terribly unpolished. It became clear that Patriots and Peoples could adopt a flexible, often informal tone, but that some of the standards for published scholarship would apply, including laborious grammar, syntax, and spell checking. Such practices as noting authorship and publication information for texts and ideas taken from others is second nature. Information without a source is none such; it is rumor, hearsay, propaganda.

After attracting one or two readers, I hungered for more. I have had modest success attracting a few. According to Technorati, this blog climbed into the top million in just over two months of existence. Then Reuters picked up my story "Origins of Malaria," bringing a few new readers while offering future prospects of many more.

Poll Results

Within a few days of starting Patriots and Peoples, I set up two reader polls. These asked whether the respondents had read Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen's A Patriot's History of the United States, in one poll, and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in the other. The answer selections revealed the underlying questions was one of evaluation. Identical possible answers were offered to participants: no; yes, and I think it is terrific; yes, and I think it is okay; yes, and I disagree with its slant; yes, and I think it is terrible. Do readers of these books like them, and how strongly?

The raw data is tabulated in the table below.







Not Read















The data suggest that nearly half (48.5%) of those that have read Zinn’s A People’s History think it is terrific. Alternately, it suggests that my blog is more successful attracting readers that like Zinn than attracting those that dislike his work. The latter appears consistent with the overwhelming proportion of respondents that have not read A Patriot’s History (72.2%). Readers of A Patriot’s History, on the other hand, appear evenly split between those that like it and those that do not. But, ten responses are too few to warrant any conclusions.

We might say that these two polls show that readers of Zinn that also read this blog generally consider A Patriot’s History a book of merit, while there are very few readers of Schweikart and Allen that are also readers of this blog.

Blog Focus and Goals

More than half of my posts so far have addressed Schweikart and Allen’s text, while approximately one quarter have concerned Zinn. I have been critical of both texts, but my criticism of A Patriot’s History has been more extensive and detailed. Still, twice I have dealt with both books together on a particular topic and found Schweikart and Allen a little better than Zinn either in accuracy (“Sixteenth Century Spain: Contrasting Images”) or in attention to a topic that I believe merits attention (“November 29: This Day in History”).

Although I’ve assigned Zinn’s text in a college history course, I bought Schweikart and Allen only when I examined it closely enough in the bookstore to observe apparent distortions of a field in which I have at least minimal competence (a subject upon which I lecture several times per year): depopulation of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. As should be clear to regular readers by this point, my initial sense that A Patriot’s History evinced serious and significant flaws in its representation of this scholarship has proven an accurate assessment. Nevertheless, Schweikart and Allen’s text has facilitated the augmentation of my knowledge in this field. Zinn has much less to say on this topic, presenting debatable figures with minimal discussion.

I am not predisposed to accept the perspectives in A Patriot’s History without the full measure of skepticism. But I am no less skeptical of Zinn's claims. I make clear to students reading Zinn for my classes that I think of it as a readable text with which they could find much to disagree. In the discussion of Zinn's insights and distortions, both consequences of his biases, history students develop critical perspectives both on the past itself and upon the processes of attempting to represent it accurately. Both books merit extensive criticism, unless one would prefer to ignore them altogether—an approach that more than likely goes hand in hand with ignoring this blog as well. Both books also have their merits and their enthusiastic readers.

Both A Patriot's History and A People's History contrast markedly with the standard textbooks that pretend to be neutral or objective are which are generally unreadable. Few such textbooks ever appear on the shelves of a bookstore that is not either a college bookstore where the customers are driven with minimal choice, or used bookstores that lack standards for rejection in their buying practices. Big Box bookstores and smaller local ones readily stock Zinn's People's History, as well as some of his other texts, and they readily stock Schweikart and Allen's Patriot's History too.

I am disappointed that I have attracted to Patriots and Peoples so few readers of A Patriot’s History. Hopefully more will come in time. Of course, A People’s History was first published in 1980, while A Patriot’s History was released in 2004. Zinn’s text has had far longer to attract readers. From a modest effort to keep a public notebook, my writing here has provoked the hope of stimulating conversation among and between conservatives and liberals. Those that see in either book an antidote to prevailing biases in history and public discourse are my ideal readers.

The Problem of Inconsistency

I managed to sustain a steady output of two to three articles per week from mid-November to the beginning of February, and then had an unproductive gap. I hope the productivity is returning, but knowing my patterns, I can be assured that dry spells will come again. These are not planned vacations, but times when certain forms of writing elude me. Sometimes I cannot write at all. Call it writer’s block if you will; it can be an infuriating malady.


doghouse riley said...

1) Your output's just fine; take it from someone who phones it in on a regular basis.

2) I'm embarrassed that my experience of both texts remains the the skimming I'd done before we met in cyberspace, and I renew my vow to do better, for all that's worth. In my defense, I'm pretty busy phoning things in.

3) Keep up the excellent work, at your leisure, and get to Hanson when you can. Regards.

James Stripes said...

Thanks for the support, and for your regular dose of sanity with Bats Left Throws Right.

Anonymous said...

I think you might be overthinking this a bit. Those that are likely to read and enjoy Zinn's book, and seek out more information on it, are attracted to unorthodox materials not reflective of centralized power's needs and concerns - in short, people who are already likely to read a lot of different blogs and give a new one a chance. Those that read Schweikart and Allen are attracted to the defense of the powerful and the status quo, and thus once something has been addressed by a voice of authority they recognize, they naturally have no need to seek out more voices talking about the subject.

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