books,  history

why I push myself to read the harder history books

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 There are a couple of different types of history books. There are the history books that portray just one interpretation of the facts as though historians know what really happened. Those are the easier books to read and when I need some light reading I’ll often turn to those. Then there are the history books that acknowledge that no one really knows what happened and they painstakingly go through the evidence and different arguments. Those books are not just about the one historical time-period but also about the history of people’s understanding of that time period. Sometimes a book will feel like it has two casts of characters, those in the historical time period and the different historians whose arguments are referenced to.  Reading some of the history books from that latter category have reminded me of two important things.

The process of studying history – or anything really – requires an openness to consider different interpretations. The history book I was reading earlier talked about why King Aethelberht asked to meet Augustine’s party of missionaries in the plain air rather than inside. According to Bede, writing a couple hundred years later, it was so that if the missionaries practiced magic arts he would not be deceived the moment he entered the room. The book I was reading (Beginnings of English Law by Lisi Oliver) points out that Aethelberht had lived with his wife’s Christianity for almost twenty years by then, so if he associated the party of foreigners with Christianity, he probably wouldn’t have feared magic arts. So either he didn’t know they were Christian, or if he did, then asking them to meet outside would probably have been for some other reason. Oliver suggests it might have been on behalf of his followers or perhaps related to the idea that Germanic tribes tended to worship outdoors anyway. My point in bringing this up is simply that we don’t know. Studying history should prepare a person for the idea that we do not know things.

It isn’t that there isn’t a truth there to know but that the stories we are told –  the history we are told –  is not always complete or accurate. We do not know why an Edmonton teacher is facing being fired. Is it because the he broke a bad rule or because he’s consistently in opposition to school policies and hence hard to work with? There’s a facebook page against my city’s animal control officer and the lady who runs it says she’s having a hard time finding a job in the animal care community because people don’t want to get dragged in the line of fire of the animal control officer by hiring her, and I think, maybe it is because people are scared of the animal control officer but maybe it is because her facebook page makes her look like a loose cannon that could turn and slander any future employers too? There are always alternatives. There are always possibilities. We cannot know exactly how or why others did what they did. We can only examine the evidence and make our best possible guesses.

That brings me to the second idea that is reinforced by studying history: how we understand something else is also about how we understand ourselves. Alan Frantzen, as quoted in “Alfredism: the use and abuse of King Alfred’s reputation in later centuries” as saying that:  “The reception of an early culture by a late one is not only a study of scholarly  discovery but also a study of self-discovery and the invention of self-image.” 

What we like or dislike, or what we think of others, is based on how that reflects on us. The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s latest television show, had a segment explaining how the news broadcasts about Casey Anthony were geared at making people (particularly women) feel good about themselves. (Watch it here: The real message is hidden within the medium by which the story of Casey Anthony is told. The message is “you are not like her. You are good.” A lot of history is written that way too, meant to support the views of the people hearing it. Looking at the story of Aethelbreht, I suspect that the story that a pagan king was frightened of powerful magic fit well with the image later Christians had of pre-Christian societies, and I suspect that the idea of a wise pagan king fits well with many non-Christians today.

Think about reading the bibliography of an author as well as the author’s works. Think about noting the changes in how the author writes over the history of his or her life. Presumably the author’s styles and ideas change as the author grows. Looking at the stories historians tell is similar. The types of stories change over time, not just during the lifetime of a single author but over the length of time we have stories recorded. Looking at one historical topic like Anglo-Saxon England, or Ancient Egypt, or whatever means also looking at how the story has changed throughout the time we’ve been telling those stories.

I like the example that good history books provide in how to handle not knowing, because it is not the post-modern denial that there is any truth, and nor is it an encouragement that everyone just believe whatever you want most. Reading history books I see examples where people are willing to acknowledge the way in which culture and time period affect a historian’s view of the world and at the same time they don’t simply throw up their hands and say “well, the historian’s imperfect so reject his idea completely.”

I like reading about scholars disagreeing with one another. I like the idea of people being able to disagree and argue, and  of people being willing to study the ideas of those they disagree with. I’m just starting now to read the book The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser, about how the Internet filters what we see so we only see what we agree with. That scares me.

Other than The Filter Bubble, the library books I’m working on this week include The Beginnings of English Law by Lisi Oliver; The Vikings in England: Settlement, Society and Culture by D.M. Hadley; and a book about early English poetry (for which I had to read Beowulf this past two days, just so I can follow what that book is about).

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One Comment

  • Neil Poirer

    “I like reading about scholars disagreeing with one another.”– My friends and I are also like this. We try to analyze each other’s thoughts and arguments through intellectual discourse, and see what their real point is. I also apply this in reading books, especially if it is an inspirational one. Of course, authors have their own views, in which I trying to look at it from different perspectives, compare it with my own, and at the end of the day, discern if I picked up anything from it. It’s great. You’ll see that individuals have their own outlook in life and we have to respect it. 😉

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