History off the press (July ’11 edition)
One of my favorite things about reading good history books is that it changes the way you see your environment. Familiar places become more exciting, strangers begin to seem more intriguing, traveling becomes a richer experience, and, if you’re lucky, some of one’s ignorant assumptions are challenged and replaced with insights. It’s like discovering again the sense of wonder about the world that we all had as kids.
The new history books published in late June and early July of this year promise to stretch our minds and offer us to look upon our world with new, unwearied eyes. As I mentioned in the first “History Off the Press” post last month, the books I will feature here were or will be published in late June or July; this list is neither exhaustive nor objective; and I have as yet read none of these publications (except for maybe a preview of the first few pages on Amazon.com).
Rivals of the ancient world
Without imagination, historical evidence seems dull and tragic. We can’t help but feel a patronizing condescension toward our ancestors, whose eroded remains of buildings look like something a child sculpted from sand on a beach and whose stories and myths sound like the imaginings of acid trippers or chauvinistic patriarchs or both.
What I like about Andrea Carandini’s new book, Rome: Day One, is his almost playful combination of taking ancient myths seriously and using colorful narrative writing to vivify the ruins of the ancient imperial city in Rome. Carandini uses the archaeological evidence to argue that the myth of the founding of Rome by Romulus is not far from the truth, that “a king whose name might have been Romulus founded Rome one April 21st in the mid-eighth century BC, most likely in a ceremony in which a white bull and cow pulled a plow to trace the position of a wall marking the blessed soil of the new city.”
Historians currently think that the myths about Romulus and Remus are pure fiction, so Carandini’s ideas are fresh (and worth considering, since he’s an accomplished archaeologist). I also like the way he begins the book (which itself is pleasantly brisk at 184 pages) by quoting Sigmund Freud and talking about how the city of Rome, with its layers upon layers of archaeological remains, is like the human mind with its strata of memories from childhood and adulthood, preserved in the unconscious like the sun-bleached marble pillars of classical buildings still standing in Rome today.
Another exceptional read in the field of ancient history this month will be Richard Miles’s Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization about the empire that almost doomed Rome to an early grave but was instead itself wiped off the map by Roman armies. Carthage, a North African colony of the Phoenician people of Lebanon, is barely remembered today (notable exception: Sid Meier’s Civilization II) but the drama of the Punic Wars fought between the two giant powers of the ancient Mediterranean world was immense. Miles’s is the new definitive scholarly work, it seems, about this lost civilization, and thankfully it appears to have been written with style.
Another thing I like about reading history is that it helps me understand things around me which are confusing, such as bars and rock ‘n’ roll. Yes, you read right; at one point in my life, after an upbringing in an improbably “dry” Russian-American household listening to acoustic Russian folk and bard music, I had to acquire the taste for electronically-enhanced musical instruments and the conception of a tavern as a communal gathering place of peers. Perhaps reading the following books may have accelerated my “education”.
In America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops (an Oxford publication, mind you), Christine Sismondo shows how drinking establishments have been an important part of American culture ever since colonial revolutionaries gathered in taverns during the Founding era. I like books like this, that pick an interesting but narrow slice of society and follow its thread of history back through the centuries. Despite their controversial reputation, bars and the like have been and remain – at least in my experience – one of the few public places for secular American people to mingle in the evenings, and it took me a while to appreciate this.
Like drinking establishments, rock ‘n’ roll also floundered and thrust its way out of the mire of ill repute in America during the 20th Century. As Preston Lauterbach describes in The Chitlin’ Circuit: And the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll, rock music came about in a dubious milieu of gambling, scandals and crime but also – like other great musical movements such as tango – reflected an outpouring of creativity by an impoverished segment of society (in the case of rock ‘n’ roll, African Americans).
It’s good to have an open mind, and learning about the origins of seemingly strange things by studying history facilitates this. Understanding that new things are frequently rooted in something as universal as the desire to celebrate life during times of little hope suddenly doesn’t make those things seem so inexplicable and foreign anymore. This applies to a lot of experiences in life, I think, not just music and beer. And though I’m not in a bar right now, I am rocking out to some K-Hits 104.3 FM as I write this.
Seemingly the last thing in the world that can be called refreshing to contemplate is debt. But I think David Graeber may pull it off in his new book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. The first striking thesis of this controversial anthropologist’s book is that money was not invented to replace barter economies. Instead, bartering (i.e. the simplest form of economy, where goods are exchanged for other goods without any intermediary currency) had been replaced by complicated credit systems long before money was created.
“It is in this era [between barter economies and money economies]”, the book describes, “that we also first encounter a society divided into debtors and creditors.” And this leads to Graeber’s second interesting thesis. He contends that such ideas as “guilt”, “sin” and “redemption” in the books of the Bible come from ancient cultures’ deep familiarity with debt as a social cleaver between those that stand to gain and those that owe. I still have difficulty understanding on an intuitive level from where the biblical writers were getting some of their basic ideas, and Graeber’s bold attempt to enrich the cultural context of the Bible piqued my interest.
Speaking of bold, a new memoir titled Hesitation Kills: A Female Marine Officer’s Combat Experience in Iraq recounts author Jane Blair’s service in a front-line aerial reconnaissance unit operating unmanned flying “drones” during Operation Iraqi Freedom. It’s a relatively rare occurrence in history for women to serve as front-line soldiers, so this fact alone makes Blair’s perspective on the war unique.
Beyond this, judging from the brief preview of the text on Amazon, Blair has a biting and imaginative writing style that is difficult to stop reading. From the first couple of pages: “[Americans after 9/11] were prepared to trade certain liberties for security, sacrificing 229 years of national character on the altar of the moment.” And, “When civilians talk about patriotism, Marines talk about sex, drinking, stupid things done while drinking, stupid things done while not drinking, and sex.” How can you not want to read more?
Finally, I think this last selection will be particularly rewarding for anyone who practices a modern version of the ancient craft of storytelling (i.e. teachers, historians, poets, movie directors, hip hop artists). Richard Hamilton, a reporter, studied the vanishing community of oral storytellers in Marrakech, Morocco, and recounted their stories in The Last Storytellers: Tales from the Heart of Morocco.
The Moroccan storytellers are of the type of artist that is perhaps the most authentic. For many of them, becoming a storyteller meant a lifetime of poverty, social stigma, and political persecution. But they did it anyway, reciting stories from One Thousand and One Nights and the Hebrew Bible in public spaces in the open air as a vocation. There’s a part of me that unashamedly geeks out thinking about that kind of devotion to the beautifully spoken word. It’s a shame their community (and others like it around the world) is disappearing in favor of YouTube, movies and TV shows.
But nostalgia is as much an enemy of the historian as is collective amnesia. There are parallels to this sort of heroic storytelling emerging all around us even today, if we have the eyes to see them (for instance, journalists embedded in highly dangerous regions). In my mind, the key is to first understand the vanishing past for what it was, and then to see its continuity – alive and ever coming into being in new forms – in the present. With this knowledge, the world becomes less of an intimidating and unfathomable place, and we can even begin to use the past to meaningfully influence our present environment.