Why should you become forever-interested in history, you ask? What’s exciting about dates and places and people? Well, to answer the latter question, I wouldn’t call it exciting; I’d call it essential. And to answer the former, because it will provide you endless material for exploration. Quite literally, endless. Everything in the world, if you think about it, is history, or becomes it.
I’ve become taken with the subject after a few lucky elective course selections with some passionate and intelligent professors. Now that I’m done my formal schooling and any further education is up to me, I’ve decided to take the matter into my own hands and continue reading about history and exploring the subject. The problem is the scale and scope of it – there is simply too much. Here are some starting points which – I hope – are sending me off in the right direction.
Family Histories. What better place to start than with the history of yourself. I am, interestingly, both at an advantage and at a disadvantage here. My family is Ukrainian and have collectively lived through incredible events during the reign of the USSR alone. However, I live far from most of them and cannot access these experiences easily. Compiling your own story – mentally, or on pen and paper – is important not only because it’s interesting, but because it’s the most relevant to you personally. When you know your family history, you have roots. It’s a stabilizing feeling, really.
Microhistories. Of all literary trends in progress of developing right now this is my favourite. Simon Winchester wrote, on two(1) occasions(2), about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, Siddartha Mukherjee wrote about cancer, Niall Ferguson wrote about money, and Mark Kurlansky wrote about salt. Bill Bryson wrote among many books one on the history of the home. What makes these books remarkable in my mind is that they all start with specific objects but branch out to make sweeping (and accurate!) remarks about the world at large. You can grasp a larger concept with smaller case studies.
Plus, these make fantastic conversation topics. The Oxford English Dictionary was compiled in the first part of the twentieth century largely through definition submissions – there are many, many words in the language, you see – and the committee in charge was in an interesting situation when they found out the largest number of contributions was made by a man in an insane asylum. True story. Go read Winchester.
Sweeping Histories. I’m currently reading a book called Ideas; in it, Peter Watson attempts to create a chronology of inventions – “from Fire to Freud.” An ambitious undertaking, and it’s an ambitious read as well at 1015 pages. The benefit here is a larger temporal resolution – a bigger picture – which provides the context you need for understanding individual events, or microhistories for that matter. Histories of empires and countries would have a similar effect. I advise staying away from the dry textbooks that turned us all off history in high school. Find an author who is fair in their bias (because everyone unavoidably writes with a bias – history is a construction), but who is also a storyteller.
Science Histories. We live in a world that is made possible by technology and science and engineering and a whole lineup of other subjects many people find unappetizing and frightening. It can be interesting to understand some of these topics at some level, though. For example, James Gleick wrote a fantastic account of the history of information management and communication. I read it this summer and closed the book with the knowledge that I will read it again some day. It’s simply too insightful; everything in the world is held together by information, and Gleick tells it with the air of a conversationalist but also a teacher. The contemporary “flood” of information that he describes cannot be appreciated properly until you know how it came to be possible throughout the past thousands of years.
The History of the World. I wrote about reading many books until this point. However, to understand what happened in the world in the past, you have to physically go there. Our immediate surroundings have a lot to tell us. And if you travel, you already know that each place you go has a different personality; a different character. A different constitution, much like people do. Next time, try to understand why a place is the way it is, how it came to be situated where it is, and pick apart the cultural elements that shaped it. This sort of meditation is my favourite part of travel.
I was fortunate enough to be in Paris this June. One of my strongest impressions of the city was walking the catacombs underground. As I walked, I looked at how much stone the city used over the years; how many people lived here and contributed to it. The sheer mass of the people – now resigned to posthumous anonymity – astounded me. It is one thing to read. It is a whole different thing to see.
What kinds of history would you explore? What am I missing from the list? Who are your favourite authors and what are your favourite places to go? Being new to much of this, I would love to hear from you like-minded readers. Leave a comment or email me!
Here is a link to a list of popular microhistories from the Goodreads website.
Bill Bryson does excellent history and travel literature. Here is his website; he’s a guaranteed fun read!