Simon Reid-Henry in More Intelligent Life:

InIn 1970 the great novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was putting the finishing touches to what he called “the chief artistic design of my life”. Its title, “August 1914”, was intended to convey to readers everything they needed to know about the content, even if they had never heard of the Battle of Tannenberg, the actual focus of the narrative, or read “The Guns of August”, the Pulitzer prize-winning account of the start of the first world war. This was the book with which Solzhenitsyn hoped finally to outdo his literary nemesis, Tolstoy, by blending history and fiction in a manner so “urgent…so hectic and choppy,” wrote his translator, Michael Glenny, that, “at times it almost leaves you breathless”. Alas, breathlessness can be tiresome over 6,000 pages, and “August 1914” never captured the public imagination. Yet Solzhenitsyn, the great inventor, was on to something. Today the market is in full bloom for what the writer Henry Grabar, tongue firmly in cheek, calls “annohistory”. The display tables are groaning with copies of Max Hastings’ “Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914”, Allan Mallinson’s “1914: Fight the Good Fight”, Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914” and Mark Bostridge’s “The Fateful Year: England 1914”. Any day now, something similar will happen with 1989.

What is it about some years that they come to hold such a prominent place in our culture, decades after their passing? Are some years really that much more important than others? Was what happened in them so dramatic that the dates themselves have become a rift that lifts up out of the earth, leaving all historical activity merely sloping away—“a drama never surpassed,” as Churchill once put it? What matters in history used to be a matter for the intellectual class to decide. For better and worse, those days are gone. Edinburgh University’s Tom Devine clearly thought he was criticising Britain’s education secretary, Michael Gove, when he said during a recent spat over the teaching of school history: “you cannot [just] pick out aspects of the past that may be pleasing to people”. But that is precisely what many history books do. And it is what readers do every time they walk into the history section of a bookshop.

More here.