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History II – A Life’s Passion

It probably doesn’t need to be said to anyone who’s looked at The Ravenstones website or read my previous blogs, but I am an avid reader of books on history.

The list of authors and their works that I value is far too long to include in a brief post. But some stand out – Robert Caro’s majestic and encyclopedic biography of Lyndon Johnson (can’t wait for the next volume); William Manchester‘s histories of America; Daniel Boorstin’s The Creators, The Seekers and The Discoverers; Gregor Dallas’s three volumes on how wars’ end (a political, military and diplomatic history of the last months of the Napoleonic, First and Second World Wars); the prolific Paul Johnson, who dares to go against the grain in his many books, A History of the American People, The Birth of the Modern, Art: A New History, to name but a few; Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August (and everything else she has written); Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team Of Rivals; John Hale’s The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance (I once thought of turning this book into a documentary TV series – when did the idea of what is now modern-day Europe take hold?); A.N Wilson’s The Victorians and After the Victorians; and Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s Civilizations.

Then there are the biographers – Elizabeth Longford, Antonia Fraser, Conrad Black. Although it’s hard to differentiate between an historian and a biographer, they are usually both: the Canadian popular historians (Pierre Berton, Farley Mowat, James H. Gray); the military historians (Corelli Barnet, A.J.P. Taylor, John Lukacs, John Keegan, Niall Ferguson); the Canadian political historians (Jeffrey Simpson, John Sawatzky, Richard and Sandra Gwyn).

It’s hard to stop. Really, it is. I could go on. And on. But I don’t want to bore anyone. The only thing that stops me reading more is time, or, rather, the lack thereof. Over the course of writing The Ravenstones, I’ve greatly curtailed my reading of everything but history and detective stories. And even then, I’ve had to compromise.

So, why study history? It’s a question that needs to be asked.

Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian Jon Meacham made the following observation during the 2020 Democratic National Convention:

“History, which will surely be our judge, can also be our guide.”

Although that brief statement provides a wonderful encapsulation of the answer to my question, still more needs to be said. The Canadian-born scholar, Peter Stearns, former chair of Carnegie Mellon University Department of History (and much else besides) has contributed an excellent and succinct essay on the American Historical Association’s website, entitled “Why Study History?”. It more than covers the topic.

“History is … very useful,” Stearns starts off, “actually indispensable, but the products of historical study are less tangible, sometimes less immediate, than those that stem from some other disciplines.” Further, the study of history has often been justified for reasons that are no longer acceptable in today’s world. So, those reservations being admitted, what then are the valid reasons to study history?

The study of history, Stearns maintains, helps us understand people and societies, understand change and how the society we live in came to be, contributes to moral understanding, provides identity, is essential for good citizenship and is useful in the world of work.

Such study also provides other benefits to the scholar, developing key (overlapping) abilities and skills – that of assessing evidence, dealing with conflicting interpretations and analyzing past examples of change.

More than that, Stearns says, “history well told is beautiful. Many of the historians who most appeal to the general reading public know the importance of dramatic and skillful writing—as well as of accuracy. Biography and military history appeal in part because of the tales they contain. History as art and entertainment serves a real purpose, on aesthetic grounds but also on the level of human understanding. Stories well done are stories that reveal how people and societies have actually functioned, and they prompt thoughts about the human experience in other times and places. The same aesthetic and humanistic goals inspire people to immerse themselves in efforts to reconstruct quite remote pasts, far removed from immediate, present-day utility. Exploring what historians sometimes call the “pastness of the past”—the ways people in distant ages constructed their lives—involves a sense of beauty and excitement, and ultimately another perspective on human life and society.”

I would say that everyone of my favourite historians has succeeded in both making history come alive for today’s reader, examining and re-interpreting the world in new and often surprising ways and, most important, contributing to our (evolving) understanding of the past.

I’ve been interested in history as far back as grade school (Grade IV to be exact), no matter what the geographic area or domain (economic, political, medical, military, religion, art, diplomatic, constitutional, etc.). In my view, there’s no better way to understand today than to read about how we got here. And, in my view, not enough people make the effort.

And, of course, one’s notion of ‘history’ evolves. What we learned back in grade school of ‘heroic’ European fur traders, explorers and administrators bringing enlightenment to vast empty lands must now be mixed with the history of the original inhabitants, who have a very different take on what occurred. Fortunately, that comprehension is gaining wider acceptance.