Steve Pincus’ 1688: The First Modern Revolution is, as you’d expect, a history of England’s Glorious Revolution; and moreover, it’s one making a revisionist case that it was a modern revolution, not just a palace coup or a restoration, as it’s been often portrayed. (And that definitely is how it’s usually portrayed; I was very confused in my English history classes in college why something so absolutely trivial and minor got this big hepped-up “Glorious” title. Pincus in fact points to that title as evidence that people of the time absolutely considered it a big deal.)
So the thing that really stands out to me about this book… well, first it’s that it’s longer than I was expecting. I’ve remarked before about how tricky ebooks can be that way. In this case, I doubt I’d’ve picked up a physical book as long as this one turned out to be (660+ pages in hardcover), because I would have told myself I didn’t care that much about the subject. But having read it, it seems about as long as it needs to be for its subject.
But beyond that, what stands out stylistically is that Pincus does that “tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, tell ‘em, then tell ‘em what you told ‘em” thing that high school teachers pound into students’ heads. Which, while it’s a natural structure for student papers, reads really weird in a full-length book like this. The first time I got to one of those summation paragraphs, I was actually confused about whether I’d lost my place and gone back to the original page where he laid out the argument that he was now repeating. But repetition of the repetition made it clear what was going on.
That did make it feel like a student paper, though. I didn’t bother looking up who the author was before I read the book, and I assumed he was some young scholar just making his way in the world, and maybe this was actually a publication of his Ph.D. thesis. But no, Pincus got his Ph.D. some thirty years ago and is an established professor at Yale. Go figure.
As for the actual substance of his argument, I’m probably in some ways an ideal reader to fully accept all his arguments as I have only the most cursory knowledge of the standard historiography, so can be easily persuaded by just about any evidence at all. And for the most part, I do find his argument compelling; contextualizing 1688 by looking at the decades around it definitely does make it seem like this was a modern revolution (the criteria for which he lays out in an early chapter that’s worth reading in a general sense even if you’re not interested in this particular revolution).
But there are definitely times when he seems to be overstating his arguments, like when he talks about how there wasn’t a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment as James II ascended to the throne. In support of this, he quotes a bunch of public proclamations from individuals and institutions that basically boil down to “I for one welcome our new Catholic overlords!” and takes them at face value. Pincus clearly isn’t stupid, and surely understands perfectly well that people could have trepidations that wouldn’t make it into their public pronouncements, so why set up such a transparently weak argument?
At any rate, I think this book is essential reading if you’re interested in its subject matter—whether or not you buy his arguments, it seems to be an important piece of the historiography of the Glorious Revolution. But if you’re just out there looking for engaging history books on any subject at all, you don’t need to either rush to or avoid this one; it’s good, but the style is a bit clunky, and it’s a bit (though just a bit) of a slog.