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History, writes Malcolm Bradbury, the British novelist and critic, “is the lies the present tells in order to make sense of the past.” While exaggerated, there is little doubt that the present is constantly seeking to relate itself to the past—or to a past that it creates. It will be just as plausible, however, to assert that history is the lies the past tells in order to make sense of the present. As we try to understand contemporary issues, we often go back to the past and try to find events, themes, roots, lessons, and the like that may have some relevance to the present. The task of a historian is to carry out such an enterprise as openly and dispassionately as possible so as not to let the past tell “lies.”


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