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New books with alternate views on history (Spring 2016)

Posted in Books, Culture, Reading, Stories, Storytelling, War by Alex L. on May 28, 2016

History off the Book header

I’m always on the look-out for interesting perspectives on history. The books I will feature today are just such finds. I again have not ready them yet, but they do look intriguing enough to spend a few evenings with.

The first one is Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger. Author of The Perfect Storm, Junger in this later work–which came out on May 24–examines humans’ instinctual tribal affiliations and the powerful alienation that happens when modern society fails to organize itself into meaningful and productive tribes. I think that “tribe” is an interesting category with which to study history, and personally agree with the general points made about the importance of tribes to human life that are mentioned in the book’s synopsis.

The second book is Noam Chomsky’s Who Rules the World?, which was released on May 10. Chomsky is one of my personal heroes because, though I don’t always agree with him, he argues his points dispassionately and always buttresses them with hard facts. Although he usually takes an axe to established modes of thinking, I think there has been a growing awareness in society that America is not in the best of shape. Perhaps his and society’s views are converging. Either way, his perspectives are always provocative of thought.

I heard about the third work on the radio–fittingly, since it was published in April by StoryCorps. This is Dave Isay’s Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work. I’ve been on a longish search for my own “calling” in life, so philosophical works such as this are appealing to me. It seems to be a collection of stories describing everyday people’s relationship to their work–some as humble as a popcorn seller at a baseball game (this is the one I heard about on the radio). It promises to be an inspiring look at human creativity in even the unlikeliest of places.

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New books from the Univ. of N. Carolina Press (Spring 2016)

Posted in African, American, Blogs, Imperialism, Podcasts, Politics, Storytelling by Alex L. on January 11, 2016

History off the Book header

Today let’s look at a small selection of upcoming new history titles from the University of North Carolina Press (UNC Press). Again, these are works that struck my curiosity from their catalog rather than books I have already read.

First up is The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century by Jon Grinspan. This one is interesting because we are in an election season, and young people of my generation don’t vote (but they should! though I am sometimes guilty of this myself) as often as their elders. I never would have thought that this was not the general trend in earlier times.

The next original work is The Voyage of the Slave Ship Hare: A Journey into Captivity from Sierra Leone to South Carolina by Sean M. Kelley. The events described in the book took place in the mid-1700s and explores an overlooked segment of African-American history: the first-generation slaves brought to the American continents.

Finally, for anyone interested in podcasts and the new upsurge in popularity of talk radio, this work by Jeff Porter could be a worthwhile read: Lost Sound: The Forgotten Art of Radio Storytelling. Today’s great podcasts have their roots in the shows of storytellers who honed this craft on the airwaves when radio first became widespread in the early 20th century. This is their story!

Thanks for “tuning in” to these new blog posts. I will continue to look at new history works from other university presses as well as from popular publishers in the days to come.

Art and moral courage

Posted in Art, Continental, Museums, Storytelling by Alex L. on February 12, 2012

Louvre Museum at dusk (image courtesy of Gloumouth1 via Wikipedia)Does being an atheist mean you have to be non-religious, asks popular philosophy writer Alain de Botton? In a new book and in an interview on the podcast Philosophy Bites, he answers that atheists should give certain religious practices a second look.

Himself an atheist, de Botton argues these points in the interview: (1) it’s easy for people of all beliefs to forget moral lessons they’ve learned in the past and continue repeating their mistakes, (2) religions do a good job of creating a “moral atmosphere” that inspires people to think about goodness, evil, suffering, and kindness; (3) art museums should organize at least some of their galleries not chronologically but thematically, taking inspiration from church services that through the senses invite the viewer to consider moral and ethical questions; and (4) atheists should adopt for themselves ideas that they like from any religion just like one may both like and dislike certain parts of the same work of literature.

Can going to a museum make one morally courageous? I agree with de Botton’s first proposition, and I also think that art can remind us of our values. For me, narrative-centered art forms like film, literature, and biography have the strongest impact on reinforcing my beliefs (or challenging them, for that matter). Static forms of art (like painting) or highly stylized ones (like opera) are more difficult for me to apply to my life. Even though I still enjoy them, I lack a mental paradigm to delve into their truths. Music, poetry, and philosophy writing break down for me in the middle: the more their arguments and observations are delivered in a narrative form, the more I am capable of thinking seriously about them. (more…)

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History off the press (July ’11 edition)

Posted in African, American, Ancient, Books, Middle Eastern, Storytelling by Alex L. on July 20, 2011

"America Walks Into a Bar" book coverOne 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.” (more…)

Two-year anniversary

Posted in Blogs, Music, Poetry, Stories, Storytelling by Alex L. on March 10, 2011

History, slightly skewedOne way to measure the success of a blog is by how much spam its WordPress filters catch. Somehow, I think the bots that troll the blogosphere know which blogs get more traffic and target their “marketing” strategy at them. The blog that I keep at work, where keywords and headings are meticulously crafted to optimize hits from the search engines, is visited as often as Don Corleone on “this, the day of his daughter’s wedding” in comparison to this, my personal blog. Each day nets dozens of spam comments in my work blog’s filter. HistoryJournal.org, on the other hand, is lucky if the errant male-enhancement ad washes up on shore once or twice a week. I don’t care. Not search-engine-optimizing my <h2> tags on HistoryJournal.org is my rebellion against marketing, my current profession.

(Yes, folks. This is the one day of the year, my blog’s anniversary – it was technically on March 8 – where I blog about blogging. Feel free to turn away. There is not so much a sign of a blog’s decay, writer’s block, or an author’s sickness of the writing craft as when he or she begins to write about what it feels like to be writing. Like a historian writing about what good history should be written like instead of showing you by writing good history himself. Nevertheless, the historiography demons need to be exorcised at least once a year, so I’ll try to keep it as short and sweet as possible.)

An opportunity presented itself to me a year ago after I wrote the post, “History, the History Channel, and Dairy Queen”. I had been looking for a way to a way to write about history that would be fresh, interesting, and relevant to the living world. With that post, I hit upon a style or genre which I could develop upon in the future. I desperately wanted to avoid writing history in the dusty forms everyone is so used to, either ringing grandiose notes that always fall flat (“Since the dawn of man…”  or, “Our world would not be the same if it were not for…”) or delving into minutiae that interests nobody but the collector of such informational tidbits (“On this day in history…”). The style that I have tried to work on this past year (in between peddling my marketing skills, chasing various pet hobbies, and staving off spirit-sapping ennui which has been waging war against me since 2007) has been to present history in an extremely personal narrative. (more…)

‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’ by Dave Eggers

Posted in American, Culture, Literature, Storytelling by Alex L. on May 23, 2010

I never thought of the Chicago suburbs as a place worthy of literature. Books, on the contrary, are something suburbanites use, like drugs, to escape the reality of their environment – a dull, slow, lonely locale, without the drama of a big city or even a small rural town. As Dave Eggers notes in his book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (hereafter referred to as AHWoSG), often under the veneer of a safe and calm neighborhood, the spirit of a suburbanite dies slowly.

I’ve had this book since high school, just sitting on my shelf. I began reading it when I was eighteen, but, coming off of English classes focusing on Faulkner, Camus, and Sartre, I was sick of authors who played fast and loose with the rules of language, especially to evoke depressing thoughts. I just graduated high school, was looking forward to college, and didn’t need these heavy stories. So I stopped reading after skimming the first few pages.

Six years later, I tried reading AHWoSG again, and finished it in the course of a week. I did not realize until this latest attempt to read AHWoSG that a good portion of the book takes place in Lake Forest, IL. In fact, the author grew up there. One of the most influential novels of the decade was written about one of the most boring places on earth.

I was inspired by this, this entering of the Chicago suburbs into literary history. There is some beauty here  after all, if one has the eyes to see. (more…)

“On the Road” by Jack Kerouac

Posted in American, American, Culture, Literature, Reading, Storytelling by Alex L. on May 4, 2010

"On the Road" cover - Penguin Great Books of the 20th CenturyWhen I was younger, I used to love reading a good book so much that I never wanted it to end, never wanted to say goodbye to its characters. Now, in my relatively more mature years, I rarely get this feeling, though I still love to read good books. Reading the last page about Dean Moriarty, I felt little sadness.

Beat writer Jack Kerouac writes in the last pages of On the Road,

So Dean couldn’t ride uptown with us and the only thing I could do was sit in the back of the Cadillac and wave at him. The bookie at the wheel also wanted nothing to do with Dean. Dean, ragged in a motheaten overcoat he brought specially for the freezing temperatures of the East, walked off alone, and the last I saw of him he rounded the corner of Seventh Avenue, eyes on the street ahead, and bent to it again. Poor little Laura, my baby, to whom I’d told everything about Dean, began almost to cry.

“Oh, we shouldn’t let him go like this. What’ll we do?”

Old Dean’s gone, I thought, and out loud I said, “He’ll be all right.” And off we went to the sad and disinclined concert for which I had no stomach whatever and all the time I was thinking of Dean and how he got back on the train and rode over three thousand miles over that awful land and never knew why he had come anyway, except to see me.

Reading On the Road, I wondered whether the spirit of the character of Dean Moriarty had suffused itself into American culture – I saw it everywhere. The incessant traveler, lover of sights and people and smells, rubbing his belly for joy, sweating, American Odysseus without a home, Walt Whitman re-incarnate. Without Dean Moriarty, the journeys that author Jack Kerouac wrote about that he took with Dean would never have taken place. Dean was the leader. (more…)

On effective introductions

Posted in American, European, Storytelling by Alex L. on March 7, 2010

Earlier today, I was in a Barnes & Noble store looking for an interesting book. On trips like these, I usually open dozens of books to read or skim the first paragraph, only to shelve them because the way the writer introduces the story doesn’t seize my long-term attention (visitors to my blog may experience a similar feeling reading these posts). I was surprised today when I found an intriguing book less than a minute after entering the store (in the bargain crates before the main entrance, in fact). It was Alex Kershaw’s The Few: The American “Knights of the Air” Who Risked Everything to Fight in the Battle of Britain.

I have browsed this book on previous visits to B&N, only to put it back on the shelf like many others. This (and other similar experiences) suggests to me that why a book catches a viewer’s attention has a lot to do with when it catches his attention: we see the world through different eyes depending on what state of mind we are in. Today, I was drawn to Kershaw’s story by the beautiful poem, written by a young American fighter pilot, Kershaw had reproduced as an introduction to his book (which reminded me of a famous poem by W.B. Yeats). Here is a copy it:

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds—and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
Nineteen-year-old American pilot, killed December 11, 1941

“In Search of King Solomon’s Mines” by Tahir Shah

Posted in African, Reading, Storytelling by Alex L. on October 7, 2009

solomon2

Tahir Shah is the ideal kind of traveler. While I typically explore a foreign country in a comfortable coach bus with other tourists, Shah travels on a camel with a salt caravan. While I am too self-conscious to speak to the locals, Shah hires an entourage of guides, drivers, and porters to accompany him on every adventure. While I have lodged in all-inclusive resorts (enclaves of America and Europe nestled into Mexico or the Dominican Republic), Shah has been imprisoned for weeks in a Pakistani torture chamber.

Well, that’s going a little too far even for my taste. Tahir Shah, one quickly realizes, is not a traveler of the modern mold. He could care less about wine, golf, and seaside massages. In Search of King Solomon’s Mines, his account of travels in Ethiopia, documents Shah’s quest for the source of the legendary treasure from the First Temple in Jerusalem. Shah is not the first to search for the ancient gold mines of Ethiopia, and his manner of conducting his expedition seems almost naive (he got the idea from an obviously-fake treasure map of Ethiopia that he purchased in a Jerusalem marketplace). But while reading the book, one realizes that Shah is not looking to get rich; he is looking for a story. He travels according to the motto, “adventure is only inconvenience rightly understood”. And any adventure is worthwhile if it proves interesting to recall. So getting ripped off by an opportunistic Israeli merchant is no loss. Shah seems to have relished writing about the experience. Even a counterfeit map, in retrospect, can lead one to treasures of a sort.

Colbert calls for poetry revival

Posted in American, Culture, Poetry, Storytelling, Television by Alex L. on June 19, 2009

I enjoyed last night’s interview on the Colbert Report of poet Paul Muldoon, especially how Stephen Colbert tried to popularize poetry by reading one of Prof. Muldoon’s works, “Tea”. As Colbert mentioned, poetry is not cool in today’s America. In a country with a strong democratic spirit, perhaps it seems like an artifact of antiquated aristocratic habits. Quote a poem at a social event and you are sure to sound like a snob.

But this decline in popularity is not entirely the public’s fault. I think poetry, like other arts influenced by academia, has evolved to be too cerebral for the public’s taste. And what a shame!

Well-crafted verse, like no other art, has the power to preserve for posterity emotions, the spirit of an age, and even morals. I heard a contemporary scholar criticize Walt Whitman for writing some of his poems in rhyme. But how well Whitman captured the spirit of a historical moment – the national mood upon the assassination of President Lincoln soon after the end of the Civil War – in his rhyming poem “O Captain! My Captain!”! It is rightly so that this poem is remembered above others in the compilation, Memories of President Lincoln, because it not only delivers a powerful message but also does it so pleasurably (one need not overstrain his brain to understand it).

My hope is that poetry does experience a revival. Words beautifully prepared and powerfully spoken are one of life’s greatest joys.