A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History by Michael Frisch (review)
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A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History. By Michael Frisch. Albany: State University of New York, 1990. 300 pages. Softbound, $33.95.

The three reviews which follow below present new considerations, from contemporary perspectives, of the lasting–and ongoing–contributions to oral history theory and practice made by Michael Frisch's often-cited book.

David Cline

What follows is not a traditional book review or even, as may understandably be assumed, an homage to what is widely considered, but perhaps not always used, one suspects, as a canonical text in our field. No, what follows is more of a reflection on a personal relationship with a book—that book, of course, is A Shared Authority.

As in so many relationships, time and assumptions and lack of attention take their toll—we assume we are giving the relationship our full attention but have actually fallen into habits that mean we are just skimming the surface. So it has been with me and A Shared Authority. We have been faithful to each other over these long years, but have we really given the relationship our all?

I suspect that many who acknowledge A Shared Authority's place in the pantheon and profess to love it—and here I think no apologies are due the author, who has likely long suspected the same—never got substantively beyond the title. Others, like myself, paid the book lip service, complimented a few favorite features, but failed to really know the book in its entirety. For me, the weight of all of this, and the guilt, are close to crushing—as in any real relationship, right? Indeed, the combined pressure of acknowledging the limits of my faithfulness and doing the book justice in this essay, made me into the book-review equivalent of the guy who desperately wants another date but will not call back. And the longer he waits, the more fraught it all gets. I believe I was assigned this book review close to a year ago. And for a year, I carried the book with me nearly daily. I thought constantly about calling but never picked up the phone. When I finally did, I was sure it was going to be a letdown, and I [End Page 372] only wished I could give every reader a box of chocolates to ease the disappointment.

Now, judge me as you will, but the truth is that while I have sung the praises of A Shared Authority year in and year out and faithfully taught with it since I began teaching ten years ago, I have used less and less of it over the years. I believe I may once have actually read the whole thing through in the year 2000, as a graduate student. But like most graduate students, I did not really read it, did not savor it or luxuriate in it. As I graduated from student to student/practitioner to professor/practitioner, I cherry-picked the contents even more. The first few times I taught with it, I had students read roughly half the book, then whittled that down to maybe a third. The most recent time I think I taught with just the introduction. I knew in doing this that I was not giving the book its due, but now, having finally read it all the way through again for the first time in sixteen years—in fact several times over this past year—I can say with conviction that I was doing it a great injustice.

The book is not perfect; in fact, it is radically uneven at times due to the nature of its structure as a compilation of previously published pieces of vastly varying types. These sit together awkwardly sometimes, not so much apples and oranges as apples and pears, or apples and pears and some unfamiliar apple-like fruit that just showed up at Whole Foods. This smorgasbord approach to the study of oral and public history, I believe, made the cherry-picking somewhat inevitable, if not exactly excusable. In fact, it was not excusable at all, for to skip about too much—as will be obvious to those...