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Dick Harrison, the brand

A man at a bookcase. Photo
Recently Dick Harrison had his 105th book published. Photo: Charlotte Carlberg Bärg

Dick Harrison is 57 years old and has written 105 books. He lectures all over the country, is a regular expert on TV and radio, runs a podcast, and writes articles for magazines and two columns a week in one of Sweden’s largest newspapers.
“Teaching is my calling, though, the thing closest to my identity.”

It’s winter and muddy on the drive in front of the Harrisons’ Art Nouveau villa in Åkarp. One end of the house is a building site. In a few months’ time, the new library will be finished. Two floors with large panes of glass, a fireplace and ceilings seven and a half metres tall. There will be room for more than just books.

“My wife and I have perhaps the largest collection of Christmas baubles in Sweden, so of course we’re going to have a really big tree in the library when Christmas comes,” he says, pointing into the study where 104 of his books are lined up, taking up three and a half shelves. The 105th, a mystery novel called Herrens år 1402 (In the Year of the Lord 1402), was published a few days before LUM was sent to print.

Dick Harrison is well aware that his name is a brand. He is probably Lund University’s most famous public figure. At least at home in Sweden. More unexpected is his success in the Netherlands, where his non-fiction books have sold over 50,000 copies. 

a man at an overloaded desk. Photo
Dick Harrison at his desk in Åkarp. Photo: Charlotte Carlberg Bärg

Twice a year, he notices his celebrity during the Gothenburg Book Fair and Medieval Week on Gotland. The latter is a kind of holiday from reality as he spends a week in August walking around Visby in strange clothes.

The name of the game

“That’s when I feel a bit like an academic Bruce Springsteen. I treat myself because it’s fun and I get a kick out of it, and sometimes people ask for my autograph. But otherwise, I don’t feel like a celebrity. It’s not like I get stopped at ICA.”

Dick Harrison does not take his job lightly. Hard work is the name of the game, every day. He gets up at 4:30 am, gets ready, works for a couple of hours and then prepares breakfast for his wife and daughter. Then, more work, all day long. He is often found teaching, otherwise doing research and writing. He doesn’t need breaks or bother with fika. Lunch is also a rarity.

“I’ll eat some fruit, that’s enough. I love my work and I use every minute I have. Unless a student catches me between two lectures, I work. It’s my life. I work very hard and write every spare moment I get.”

Wrote for a living

There’s no mistaking the efficiency and incredible productivity. The explanation for his flow and lack of writer’s block is the Swedish National Encyclopaedia (NE). As a newly minted PhD at the age of 21, he was recruited to write for the NE. He is not boasting when he says:

“I wrote for a living, and I wrote anything and everything the Swedish National Encyclopaedia asked for. When the professors started to tire around the letters i, j and k, I took those on too. I became one of the most diligent and productive writers they had.” 

After that, he moved on to another reference classic, Bra Böcker’s Lexicon 2000, where he wrote all the history. In total, it represents more than ten years of daily work producing succinct, concentrated texts. Almost always with a deadline the next day.

“That was how I learnt my craft and how to overcome writer’s block. I write fast, but research takes as long for me as anyone else.” 

a man with glasses. photo
Writing non-fiction is part of his job at the University. Fiction writing is in his leisure time. Photo: Charlotte Carlberg Bärg

Writing books and doing research is fun, but after talking to Dick Harrisson for a while, you understand that teaching is what excites him the most.

“Teaching at university level is my calling, though, the thing closest to my identity. I genuinely enjoy teaching and it is no coincidence that I frequently lecture outside Lund University in my spare time.” 

“grey zone of popular history”

His writing career, however, happened more by chance. Popular history writing was an obscure endeavour when the publisher Prisma first contacted Dick Harrison. When other publishers followed suit, he realised that he had found a second profession. And one that could be developed in parallel with his work at the University.

Yet he was afraid to take the plunge and write in what he calls the “grey zone of popular history”, that is, until he got his first permanent position as senior lecturer in Linköping in the mid-1990s.

“There was a taboo around writing for a popular audience at that time. It was not something an academic did. It worked against you, even. I’ve been an external expert for appointments and I know how the talk went.” 

“Today it’s not a problem at all, and it’s part of my job. Research is one part, as is writing. The fact that people want to read what I write is just a bonus.”

Podcasting with his wife

Dick Harrison is careful when describing his writing. He writes non-fiction as part of his job. The fiction writing, including the crime and mystery novels, is done as part of a separate company, and that is in his leisure time. When he is hired as a consultant or adviser, or gives talks outside the University, it is also within the framework of his company. 

The same goes for the podcast Harrisons dramatiska historia (Harrison’s Dramatic Histories), which he and his wife Katarina Harrison Lindbergh produce together. It has grown quickly. 

“We started the podcast just over a year ago and are already recording season five.”  

He regularly receives offers and requests. He says no to many things, the reason being a lack of time. Daytime television sofas have fallen by the wayside. The same goes for entertainment shows in which he feels producers want him to play the funny professor. 

“There have been a few such offers and at one point Lund University even tried to pressure me to accept, but I said no.” 

Success comes at a price

His last TV appearance was in a Christmas edition of Kulturfrågan Kontrapunkt on SVT. He is also one of the experts behind SVT’s lavish flagship series the History of Sweden. He is happy to do his part in the name of popular history but prefers to have some control over how he is portrayed. 

“It has gone wrong a few times and that makes me cross.” 

What has bothered you?

“When my words have been twisted. People wanting to have an academic alibi but not really caring what it was I was saying.”

Success and fame come at a price. In the debate about immigration, he takes a positive view, resulting in threats that had to be reported to the police. Inside the university world, he has come face-to-face with academic resentment.

“I’m often ignored, and people try to make me invisible. They pretend I haven’t written books on a certain subject and don’t invite me to conferences. It’s the academic way of showing jealousy,” he says and continues:

“I strongly dislike that kind of academic stinginess and pettiness, but I have spent almost 40 years studying history every day and I never get tired of it. Teaching is as much fun now as when I started.”

A few quickfire questions with Dick Harrison

a man with glasses. photo


Which of your books is your favourite?

“The most fun to write by far was the biography of Tage Erlander. I worked on it for two or three years and ploughed through all the source material. Tage’s diaries belong to the world canon. So that’s my personal favourite, but what I’m most proud of is my trilogy on the history of slavery, which looks at world history from the perspective of the thralls. That is my greatest achievement, I think, and I’ll never be able to do anything like that again.”

Any book you are dissatisfied with?

“My second academic book from the 1990s, Medieval Space, about the perception of time and space in the Middle Ages. Today, I would have been able to produce a much better book. Otherwise, I think my books hold their own, although I can be critical of the language. I think I’ve improved as a writer over the years.”

Do you have a favourite historian?

“No, actually. I am very critical and I tend to find errors. Some individual books are brilliant, but no historian is a role model to me.” 

Your critical spirit, how does it manifest itself?

“I have to make an effort to find positive things when I write reviews and I haven’t gone to many seminars since the 1990s, because I know some people are afraid of me. But it’s part of the job to be known as a mean sod in some circles.

But you are popular with the students, aren’t you?

“Yes, I have received the University’s prize for excellence in teaching. University teaching has always been my dream job and if I didn’t like teaching, I would have resigned long ago. My business is doing well and I could make a living as a writer.”

What do you with your time off?

“I don’t have time off, I have corporatised it.” 

In which historical era would you most like to live?

“I like Star Trek and Star Wars so I don’t really want to go back in time, but rather forward. But, okay, if I could take a good dose of vaccines and other drugs with me because I know how easy it was to die in those days, I would have liked to live at the same time as Jesus to find out the hard facts. What happened in Nazareth and Calvary and why? And what exactly was the resurrection? Everything that happened then has led to a religion with billions of followers, which is the great mystery of Western culture.

But if I were not going to solve puzzles, I think the most exciting and rewarding period would be the late Middle Ages into the Renaissance, say from 1420 and the following 100 years. That was the beginning of modern society when the foundations were laid. It was a time before the state churches, the witch trials and the Inquisition, and people could voice their opinions. It is one of the most creative and dynamic phases in world history and the time when Europe took the lead in development. I would have liked to have experienced that.


About LUM

The first edition of Lund University Magazine – LUM – was published 1968. Today, the magazine reaches all employees and also people outside the university. The magazine is published six times per year. Editor Jan Olsson.

LUM website in Swedish

Editorial staff

Jan Olsson

046-222 94 79

jan [dot] olsson [at] kommunikation [dot] lu [dot] se


Minna Wallén-Widung

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