Sunday, August 4, 2013

Books that may be helpful - history

Continuing with a short attempt to name a few books in each of several areas that are usually cited as main parts of a good education, I am now up to the subject of history.  It may well be the branch of the humanities that I know the least about.  I tend to know what the main line of instruction said about this period or that but in high school and most of college, I did not have much use for history.  The main exception to this was my experience in a History of Western Civilization course, where the professor had me looking forward to wrestling with the next problem that the king of the new and growing kingdom of France would face.  As he revealed difficulties and invited us to say what we would advise in such a situation, I was eager for each class.

Even that experience failed to help me see that history is of necessity written and taught by people who were not witnesses to the events.  It was not until I was a practicing college professor (and of course, older) that I grasped that research depends on revelatory results but it depends on the observer, recorder of results and the historian who will weave some sort of a narrative of the relevant results.  Weaving narratives or organized discussions is a human undertaking and will of course be subject to the writer's knowledge, range of views, and judgment.  It is easy to get the impression that a series of events happened in a history without realizing that what is included, what is omitted and how they are viewed and related to each other depends on who is writing the account.

It is like testimony.  The famous Japanese film Rashomon relates events that occurred involving a samurai, his wife, a bandit and a woodcutter but the four accounts differ very much in what happened to whom and when.  If you are interested in a particular period of history, which will usually be in a particular place or locale or region, you can read and write and read some more for the rest of your life about it, the opinions of people who were there and of people who tried to relate what happened.

One of my favorite authors as a young man was Jacques Barzun. He was a historian and born and raised in France.  As a young man, he came to Columbia University in New York and served as both a professor of history and a dean.  One of his first books I came across was "The House of Intellect."  I felt as though I understood the book, which I read in college, but much of it was about the intellectual life in general and included references and comments about things I knew nothing about.  Later, I read his "Clio and the Doctors."  Clio is the ancient Roman muse of history and the book is Barzun's views on the emerging branch of quantitative history, the analysis of numerical data, such as records of slave sales in the south.  The book "Time on the Cross: the Economics of American Slavery" was just out about that time.


I haven't read very much history.  I read and enjoyed "The Longest Day" by Cornelius Ryan, the story of D-Day in WW II and the incredible errors and missteps on both sides.  I enjoyed "I, Claudius" by Robert Graves, a novel set in the royal house of ancient Rome and the novel "All the King's Men", another novel, about a young historian trying to understand and record Louisiana politics during the time of "Kingfish Long" but doesn't actually mention that real-life man. I thought that the novel "Pillars of the Earth" by Ken Follette gave me a feel for life in England about the year 1000, when your problems could not be helped by calling 911 or seeing a pharmacist.

Two of my favorite general science books are actually histories, as nearly any non-fiction actually is. Even a philosophy book is about what the author used to think, maybe last month, last year or a decade ago.  "A Short History of (Nearly) Everything" by Bill Bryson is a very well-written history of science over the last 300 or so years.  "The Demon Under the Microscope" by Thomas Hager is a history of the efforts and eventual success in the search for what we now call 'antibiotics'. 

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