Past Mistakes: How We Misinterpret History and Why It Matters by David Mountain (NetGalley Review)

3/5 stars

If you’re ever looking to dive into a day-long Wikihole (heaven knows we’ve all been that bored this year), I highly recommend List of Common Misconceptions.

It covers everything–from fun party facts (the Great Wall of China is not actually visible from space) to genuinely useful information (you shouldn’t wait 24 hours to report a missing person). I’ve always enjoyed these interesting little nuggets of information, breaking down our preconceived notions of our world. In his first book, writer & speaker David Mountain tackles this same subject by travelling through history to find where we’ve got it wrong–and how these misinterpretations of the facts can have lasting damage.

Mountain is a capable writer, with a chatty, pop-academia style that seems to be super popular this year. My main gripe with this work, however, is that it feels so disjointed, evoking the aforementioned Wikipedia page rather than a cohesive book. There are some interesting tidbits here: Victorian archeologists chipping paint fragments off classical statues to preserve the idea of a “pure” (read: white) Ancient Greece. Nationalist leaders effectively inventing cultural symbols (mythological “founders” of countries, traditional music, even folk costumes) from scratch to support propaganda goals. He also explores the misguided idea that women have been confined to the home until the mid-twentieth century, with an interesting in-depth look at the female workforce of the Middle Ages, which included female tradespeople and construction workers, not just “feminine” work like sewing and cooking. However, Mountain still goes back to some familiar wells for most of the text. European readers may not know much about the Christopher Columbus mythology, but this was treading pretty familiar ground for me.

By far the most interesting chapter explores the legacy of the “Wild West” in the American consciousness, starting with the fact that cowboys only had jobs for about the first twenty-five years of Westward development–once towns became more settled, there wasn’t much opportunity for their work anymore. An overwhelming majority of cowboys were non-white, and much of the iconography of their trade–Stetson hats, high-noon duels, et cetera–came from East Coast writers who made a fortune off writing “wild west” novels without actually setting foot in these settlements. This mythology continued for decades, filtering down through TV serials and Marlboro Men ads, with the American Cowboy ideal still representing an idea of self-determinism and self-defense while ignoring the fact that Western towns had gun-control laws that would send the modern-day NRA into a tizzy.

Unfortunately, Mountain fails to say much here that’s new or groundbreaking–instead it just feels like a book of fun facts. I wish he dug in more to the implications of using this false history to support dangerous political goals–he hints a bit at far-right groups using mythologised history like Bouddica defeating the Romans and Identity Evropa using classical all-white sculpture to support anti-immigrant rhetoric, but it just feels a bit toothless. I would have liked to see him pick one particular era of misinterpreted history and focus the entire book on that–it just would have had more of an impact.

Thank you to NetGalley and Icon Books for the review copy of this book.

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