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The eye of Justinian

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Three years old today! 🎂

by Anthony Webb, 21 May 2024

This website started in May 2021, three years ago today. This post is a reflection on how it is all going: what it has achieved, what it has not, what may be still to come.

This is split into two sections, the first with my reflections (Anthony Webb), the second with my co-creator’s (Andrew Salisbury).

(If you are not interested in any of this but just want to know the history books which received our coveted 5 star rating since we started three years ago, go to the all history books page, click the Filter by... button and select the Prizes option ⭐ PHB 5 stars award. There are 15, all excellent!).

Reflections - Anthony’s perspective

What were our goals?

The core team of myself and Andy Salisbury had three aims at outset, as you can verify from one of our earliest posts:

  1. Read a greater number of more interesting history books.
  2. Make popular history books more discoverable for everyone.
  3. (For me) Find out what this internet thing is all about.

Let’s see how each of them has gone:

  1. Read a greater number of more interesting history books. This is a clear tick. Overall we have read and reviewed 78 books in three years. Speaking for myself I probably wouldn’t have read almost all of them because (a) I wouldn’t have known those books existed and (b) without a structure in which to read them I would have spent more time messing around with my phone instead, or being manipulated into reading whatever popped up on the latest kindle book sale.

  2. Make popular history books more discoverable for everyone. This is a theoretical tick because while this website provides a really easy way to keep a handle on what is published in the UK, there is no doubt it is a niche endeavour! Nevertheless I have tried to make it as easily accessible as possible with an RSS feed, an email round-up that you can subscribe to - and Google tells me that we rank highly in various history book related searches. I also run the popular history books Instragram account with at the time of writing over 1,500 followers - not quite up there with Beyonce but I feel that the quality of our followers is very high even if the quantity is not.

  3. Find out what this internet thing is all about. I now have a working understand of website design, hosting, back-end / front-end, SEO optimisation (God help me), and Social Media Engagement (may God have mercy on my soul). Learning by doing has definitely been extremely effective for me here.

So after marking my own homework I am pleased to say that it has been a success 😀 but...

What has not gone to plan?

  1. My vision for this website was as a collaborative space... but most of my collaborators are currently mostly inactive, in a history book reviewing sense. This is the thing that I most wish would work better... Unfortunately, I think I am the only one out of the five strong reviewing panel who genuinely enjoys the process of writing book reviews and who will happily spend my free time to do so.

  2. Twitter / X / social media hasn’t been particularly useful. When starting I naively imagined that it would be relatively easy to share ideas with fellow history book lovers via Twitter.1 This hasn’t been the case. I feel that you need to invest huge amounts of time on a platform to cultivate potential interlocutors, or purchase followers from the platform owner, or already be famous. The bright spot has been Instagram which I have found to be the social media platform where it is easiest to connect with other history book aficionados.

What is the future?

  1. More history books! Reading the human story in all its amazing variety and similarity, mundanity and high drama is an incredible privilege. If we were born any earlier most of us wouldn’t have been able to read, and even if we could, the only book we would be able to get our calloused hands on would have been the Bible. Nowadays hundreds if not thousands of historians beaver away incessantly to bring the past to life to us in accessible 300 page episodes. I’m looking forward to reading them.

  2. At the moment this is a zero income website... but this could change, particularly if costs increase. There are a few ways in which the site could generate an income - using adverts on the site, or by including affiliated links for buying books. I am keen to avoid using adverts because they ruin the aesthetic, slow down the page load, and have a strong correlation between annoyingness and effectiveness. Affiliated links are less disruptive, and mean that if for example you click a link to a book on or and then buy it, a dollar or two goes to the affiliate. So far I haven’t done this because I think the return would be relatively small and because there is a risk that the reader trusts your judgement less if they know you will make money out of a book sale. I don’t have a moral problem with affiliate links though as long as they are declared. So if the costs of running the website increase this is something that I might do to balance it out.

  3. More website tinkering I have a few ideas for this website in terms of organising, linking and displaying reviews. Some thoughts about whether to install a proper back-end for the data. Also a vague idea of launching a “history of the world in a hundred limericks” subsite. But these are all fun things to play with, and not central to (and often a distraction from) the core idea of this website - reading history books and writing fun reviews.

So that’s it for the introspective! I will be back with more thoughts in three years’ time.

Anthony, London

Reflections - Andy’s perspective

The above is a very good and fair summary of how things have gone with the website over the last few years. Just to add my own reflections, my takeaways from the last three years are as follows:

  1. The website was and is, in all honesty, Anthony’s idea and child, and I owe him a big debt of gratitude for thinking up an idea that has really reignited my love of history. In fact, when I look back on the period following completion of my joint History and Economics degree up to the commencement of the website three years ago (a period of 19 years), I’m slightly shocked by how few history books I read. I focused much more on reading fiction, in the perhaps misguided belief that fiction was a more ‘fun’ way to unwind from my working life.

    But after many years, I have come to learn the truth of a statement made to me by a partner at my old law firm many years ago whilst we were both in a lift together and I was holding a copy of George Eliot’s Middlemarch – the problem with fiction is that it’s not true. How true that is.

  2. Not only have I read many more history books in the past three years than the preceding 19 years combined, I have also discovered other ways of learning about history. I noticed that Anthony would occasionally refer to things he called ‘podcasts’. About a year ago, I discovered that my mobile phone had a button called ‘Podcasts’ – I opened it and started listening to a show called the Rest is History and I’ve never looked back.

    I see myself as the Dominic in the relationship to Anthony’s Tom, although I have (slightly) more hair than Anthony. Perhaps Anthony and I will have a podcast one day.

  3. Where I have fallen short in the last three years has been the number of my reviews – I’ve done a few, but my production rate is somewhat sporadic. I always start history books with the best of intentions, but the problem is that as soon as I finish one, I feel the temptation to pick up another, and once I’ve done that my memory of the details of the preceding book quickly starts to dissipate. I am also not great at finishing reviews – my desktop is littered with various half started reviews which I never got around to finishing.

    Perhaps as someone who is not on social media, I have an old-fashioned fear of the online world – I imagine some apparatchik of a malign foreign state pouring over every word of my review, identifying typos (of which there are many) and then using that against me one day when I am important. I’ll endeavour to be more fruitful in my reviews in the coming years, although I doubt I’ll ever manage to pop them out at quite the rate as website chief Webb.

Andrew, London

  1. Back in my early days I remember asking Mary Beard’s opinion on something mildly controversial via a Twitter mention and being surprised when she didn’t respond. Looking at it now I would have been absolutely amazed if she did. ↩︎


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