When popular historian David McCullough passed away last year, America lost a real national treasure. Author Jeremy Adams believed it could “certainly be argued that nobody did more to tell the story of America in the past three decades than David McCullough.” “For writers of nonfiction, there are subjects, and then there are stories,” observed another author, Candice Millard. “McCullough always told stories.”

“Unfortunately,” she lamented, “there is no other writer like McCullough. We have lost one of the greats….”

Indeed, “writer” is too common a term for a penman of McCullough’s stature. Forevermore, he deserves to be remembered as a “storyteller”—a world-class and distinctly American raconteur.

But more than that, McCullough was a fierce apologist for the importance of telling stories. He understood that they were worth telling.

In many ways, the author was his own best explainer. He chronicled history and then pushed us to read it—not for his sake, but for our own. He argued that we needed it, that civilization depended on it.

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“There is so much to learn about life from those who went before us and to take no interest in what they went through, to show no respect for what they achieved is not just to be stupid, it’s gross ingratitude on our part,” he once said. “History is filled with voices that reach out to us and lift the spirit.”

He debunked the idea of the self-made man. “We love that expression, we Americans. But everyone who’s ever lived has been affected, changed, shaped, helped, hindered by other people.”

“The laws we live by, the freedoms we enjoy, the institutions that we take for granted—as we should never take for granted—are all the work of other people who went before us…. How can we not want to know about the people who have made it possible for us to live as we live, to have the freedoms we have, to be citizens of this greatest of countries in all time? It’s not just a birthright, it is something that others struggled for, strived for, often suffered for, often were defeated for and died for, for us, for the next generation.”

It was with this firm conviction that the storyteller approached his craft, his calling. The avid typist spent seven years writing “John Adams,” a decade on “Truman.” Even shorter works, including “1776,” consumed years of his life. But perhaps that is a common theme in the lives of great writers, those who understand that stories are worth telling—and worth being told right.

Tolkien toiled away at “The Lord of the Rings” for 12 years. Tolstoy took six to write “War and Peace.” Ron Chernow called biography-writing an “exquisite pain,” yet endured it to produce his monstrous volumes on Hamilton, Washington, and Grant.

Great writers rarely can afford gratification.

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But alas, we live in a time that demands gratification on a TikTok timeline. Our books are mass-produced—James Patterson-style—and preferably less than 300 pages. We gloss over our historical subjects with shocking shallowness and misunderstanding.

But, then again, why put any more work into it than that if nobody reads anyway?

To borrow from Millard, we have inundated the market with “subjects”; “stories” are in short supply. As one lyricist put it, substance has “been replaced by the masters of spin who make good-looking books and write history in.” Authors know just enough for a few impressive-sounding name drops but nothing more. For most writers, if a work threatened more than a year of effort, it would surely never see the light of day.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with being prolific. But our problem isn’t the want of prolificacy, but of conviction. Who today shares McCullough’s fierce persuasion that, sometimes, a single historical topic is worth ten years of careful excavation and treatment? Who has conviction enough in the importance of our human story to endure the sometimes strenuous slog through history?

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Not everyone will read (let alone enjoy) 1,000-page biographies. Even fewer will write such handsome volumes. But do we generally, as a nation, believe those stories are worth telling? McCullough, despite his lucrative contributions to “popular” history, certainly did not think we did.

“We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by and large historically illiterate,” he said in a speech. “We have to get across the idea that we have to know who we were if we’re to know… where we’re headed. This is essential. We have to value what our forebears… did for us, or we’re not going to take it very seriously, and it can slip away. If you don’t care about it—if you’ve inherited some great work of art that is worth a fortune and you don’t know that it’s worth a fortune, you don’t even know that it’s a great work of art and you’re not interested in it—you’re going to lose it.”

And that’s why we tell stories—to scream, “Oh, don’t lose it.”

Jakob Fay is a staff writer for the Convention of States Project, a project of Citizens for Self-Governance.

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