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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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Checking the stove, checking it twice

Posted in Psychology, Stories by Alex L. on June 26, 2011

Image of wood-fired oven courtesy of Vinny Burgoo on WikipediaNo matter how late I’m running for an appointment or how urgently I need to put my shoes on and exit the house now, I always have time before I leave to check the stove… twice.

No, there’s nothing wrong with the appliance. The stove/oven range sits snuggly embedded inside of a curving pathway of granite countertop and contends favorably with the dishwasher for the title of swankiest object in the kitchen. It has no known malfunctions.

What I’m interested in is making sure that, before I leave the house, I haven’t left the stove “on”. It just takes two (on rare occasions, three) separate trips within the span of about two minutes for me to be really convinced of the stove’s neutrality.

I’ve grown used to this habit, but the irrationality of repeating this rite at least once a day has its own consequences. The Stove has acquired powers of awful proportions. One burner left carelessly open during the course of a workday, and the entire house – my laptop, my Kindle, my papers, my books, my musical instruments, my pets, my paperwork – will be licked away by property-destroying flames (or so I think). The stove represents a solitary seed of chaos-potential in the otherwise predictable routine of life.

So it must be monitored with the care that one reserves for an errant child with a bent toward pyromania. And if one has to swing through the kitchen an extra time because one wasn’t convinced that one sufficiently scrutinized the status of every burner knob (including the slow-cooker’s) the first time, then it’s a necessary evil. (more…)

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Reed-Turner Woodland

Posted in Culture, Stories by Alex L. on June 4, 2011

Close-up of nature photo courtesy of Dustin M. Ramsey (accessed: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Morton_Arboretum_woodland.jpg)I have been watching reruns of Man vs. Wild lately. So when I saw the crumbling heap of a burned-down tree, my first reaction was to squirrel away some bits of its charcoal in my pockets. In a survival situation, these would be a valuable source of tinder to make a fire. But being twenty paces from my Ford Escort (and five minutes’ drive from the nearest Starbucks), I decided that I was not in a predicament to start hoarding the essentials.

Rather, I was in Reed-Turner Woodland, a small nature preserve in Long Grove, Illinois. It was early morning, and by whim I had turned into the woodland off of Old McHenry Road on my way to work. I parked my car in the empty gravel lot and decided to look around before resuming my commute.

Most of the forest preserves in this part of Illinois are bleak and dull. They usually occupy small plots. One gets the impression that there were no natural forests here before European settlement, or at least none worth saving. The trees leaf sparsely, and the new vegetation on the ground seems to struggle every spring and summer to overcome the decaying matter of the previous fall. If the municipal caretakers did not regularly remove dead trunks and carve channels into the riverbanks, then one can’t help but imagine that the streams would dry up and the forest itself would wither until the entire crumbling mass would finally be swept away in a prairie fire.

But Reed-Turner seemed different somehow. It was my first time there, and I decided that I had half an hour to explore the forest trails before continuing on my way to work. The trail started at the parking lot and sauntered along the edge of the woods. I hiked past the burnt-down tree – most likely culled by the village authorities because it grew too close to the road, I thought. Heading deeper into the small preserve, I heard occasional shuffling noises coming from left and right. This made me uneasy. The last time I hiked more than a day in real wilderness was five years ago. I was out of the habit and my mind feared the worst. Was that branch breaking a sure sign of a prowling coyote? Skunks and raccoons, too, would be unpleasant characters to encounter. (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…)

Tribal mind

Posted in Culture, Just for Fun, Prehistory, Stories by Alex L. on February 13, 2011

Close-up of "Hunters in the Snow" by Pieter BruegelWhen dinosaurs roamed the earth, chewing the leafy treetops with the aid of their towering necks and soaring above the rivers teeming with life on their reptilian wings, was when the plankton and algae that now power my car swam in the oceans. Dying by the generations, the tiny bodies of these organisms floated down to the ocean floor and collected and compressed over time. Given enough time (millions of years) this biomass under pressure turned into what we now call crude oil.

I sometimes get grief from my friends for driving an old car. My propulsive method of choice is an automobile manufactured by the venerable Ford Motor Company, the make being Escort Sports Wagon, the vintage 1995. The sands of public opinion have shifted and my auto is not in 2011 the strapping beast that it used to be in its heyday, but I still find something odd about this criticism lodged by some at my noble steed. For in the grand scheme of things, the automobile itself is such a curious contraption that my particular specimen of it is not nearly as interesting as the species as a whole.

The Chicago Auto Show came to the vaunted convention halls of our city this weekend and displayed its lovely stock of new machines. Sparkling under electric lamps like a river does under the sun, the parade of autos flaunted the latest fashion in sculpted forms and boasted too of new feats of agility, power, navigation, and cabin architecture. Machinery so alive with centuries of cumulative human inventiveness that it would make even the most proud and accomplished cavalryman blush in shame and hide his mare behind the nearest tree.

Why is it that we find the newest cars so attractive? Perhaps it is a kind of survival instinct: we are used to our tribe striving to acquire the fastest and healthiest herd of horses in the valley. When horses were first domesticated thousands of years ago, the armies of  humans that rode them must have become mighty in their lands, killing from their chariots and saddles the bands of other humans who couldn’t figure out the mount. The genes of those not inclined to the equine arts would have found their eternal end in the blood spilled upon the sands and the steppe. (more…)

Things, categories, patterns

Posted in Greek, Reading, Stories by Alex L. on February 6, 2011

A close-up of "doors", a painting by my friend on doodlemoose.com (click to see more)I don’t remember the topic of the discussion. I don’t recall who attended class that day. I cannot see in my mind’s eye now where I was sitting in that cavernous room in the basement of the bare-concrete humanities building. I just remember the voice of my history professor saying, in passing, to everyone in the senior thesis seminar that at some point in his twenties he had been “scrutinizing his categories”.

These strange words have stuck with me ever since, and I do remember pausing in class that day and mulling over them in my mind. What he meant, I think, was that at some point during his young adulthood he had thought about how he had come to know what he knows. For some foolish reason, these words of his began to emit in my mind the heady aroma of prophecy, and soon enough my memory of them had come to mean, “I too will scrutinize my categories one day in the near future, will rethink how it is that I have come to ‘know’ what I ‘know'”.

Truth is, though, I like talking about epistemology (the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge) about as much as I like seeing zoomed-in photographs of my face. Beliefs, like human skin, begin to reveal bizarre characteristics when seen up close. The problem is not so much with the beliefs or thoughts themselves as with our ability to scrutinize them. Most people, myself included, are just bad at coming up with insights about the way we think. Here is how a typical conversation about epistemology sometimes goes:

Svetlana: How do we know what we know?

Larry: Well, the world exists as an external entity. The individual person exists as a separate entity that sees, hears, smells, feels and tastes things in the world with his senses and understands the world through his mind.

So we understand an external world through our senses and with our mind?

Yes.

And our understanding of our world is always accurate? (more…)

The silence of the suburbs

Posted in Culture, Stories by Alex L. on January 30, 2011

A close-up of "levels", a painting by my friend on doodlemoose.com (click to see more)Although I wasn’t born anywhere near it, I grew up and live in the sleepy Chicago suburb of Buffalo Grove. Located about 45-minutes’ drive from the center of the city, Buffalo Grove is a sort of stopping place to (hopefully) better things for a great portion of its residents. Tucked a dozen or so miles away from the elite club of prestigious suburbs such as Lake Forest, Highland Park, and Wilmette, whose private beaches hug the coast of Lake Michigan, Buffalo Grove is ever conscious of its not-quite-there-yet status. If it ever forgets, the sister-village of Long Grove, with its quaint antique shops, wooded estates, and 18-holed country clubs, is nestled right alongside it as a constant reminder of the truly refined suburban life.

I have never met anyone doggedly devoted to Buffalo Grove in the way some people are patriots of New York City or even of their small towns (which isn’t to say that such fans don’t exist, I just haven’t spoken to many of my neighbors). Needless to say, there are neither buffaloes nor groves left in Buffalo Grove, while some items like sidewalks and park benches are a mere formality in a place where anywhere worth going to for anyone is reached by means of motor transport.

There are almost never people walking about. One warm summer evening last year, when the weather was perfect and the air was almost fragrant, I was driving through my neighborhood and marveled at the half-dozen or so small groups of residents I saw promenading and enjoying nature’s graces. In the backyard of one house I saw a small crowd congregating around a campfire, and I think I even remember spotting a guitar in their midst. This was a rare sight indeed.

When one who has lived in this neighborhood of densely-packed quarter-acre properties stops and thinks about all of one’s neighbors and for how long one has gone to bed night after night, year after year, in a brick-and-drywall abode only yards away from their brick-and-drywall abodes, sat in the dark evenings by the flickering lights of a television only yards away from their solitary lights, when one considers that despite all of this proximity one knows neither the names of one’s neighbors nor even the sight of their faces, it seems like some marvelous aberration of  a yet-unknown law of nature. An impression then emerges that the silence of the suburbs is not akin to something like contentedness or calm, but is the stupefying experience of creation without a story, like the rippling of the face of the deep in Genesis before the spirit of God moves across the waters.

On tricking ourselves

Posted in Greek, Reading, Stories by Alex L. on January 23, 2011

Pink elephantEven though I still read them once in a while, I am generally skeptical of self-help books. They are always incomplete, in my opinion, because they have to boil down scientific research (if they are even based on science) into easy-to-sell concepts and action steps. Getting Things Done is a good example. A recent classic in the “productivity” branch of self-help literature, GTD’s entire system is based on a ridiculous notion: to truly feel relaxed in the world, one must have all of one’s actionable  ideas “captured” into sorted lists. Can you really enjoy a casual walk with a friend, the argument goes, while not having a written account of all of your preferences and next-actions for all of your projects close at hand?

The answer is yes, in my opinion, yes you can enjoy your life without planning it every step of the way. The assumption the book makes becomes a personal-productivity tyrant: one can scarcely have an idea pass through one’s head without feeling an obsessive urge to write it down in one list or another.

Of course by “one”, I am referring to myself. That is not to say that I will credit the plethora of useful lists I keep for work-related tasks and the tickler file I employ in my office to none other than David Allen, the writer of Getting Things Done. I just realize that any self-help book is going to offer partial solutions to any problem, and one must have a healthy capacity for what Aristotle called “practical wisdom”, phronesis, to pick and choose what’s useful for one’s life.

So when I perused the Chicago Tribune’s weekly literary section – Printers Row – one day in early January, I read the article titled “Seven books to aid in your new year’s resolutions” with a large grain of salt. But one book did catch my eye, and with the glad-handed aid of Amazon’s cursed 1-click purchasing system, I ordered and downloaded Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard onto my e-reader device. (more…)

On asking the right questions

Posted in Greek, Stories by Alex L. on August 22, 2010

Close-up of Raphael's painting, "The School of Athens"Philosophy began, on the sunny shores of the city of Miletus, as science. The first philosophers attempted to describe the processes of natural phenomena, and this has largely been the legacy of philosophy in Europe and the Arab world. But before Aristotle cast his discerning eye at the heavens and earth, began sifting and winnowing all that sensory data into categories, and cemented this scientific tone to the practice of philosophy ever after, there existed different methods.

Plato is considered to be the father of philosophy. Though only a relative handful of later philosophers had adopted his literary style of philosophical writing (Friedrich Nietzsche was one of them, prompting a modern commentator to note that Plato and Nietzsche are the only philosophers that contemporary people read for fun) he remains famous for the character of Socrates in the Platonic dialogues and the focus that he had carved out for philosophy.

Philosophy, according to Socrates, was the pursuit of discovering how to live a better life. This knowledge resides in every living person, he posited, and the method of mining this hidden treasure was knowing how to ask the right questions. Philosophy, as Socrates famously described, was not about finding the answers, but about asking the right questions.

The reason I bring this up is because this phrase, repeated so often in our culture that it has become a platitude (no pun intended), seems off to me. Today, I was thinking about some problems in my life that have gone unresolved for several years. Applying my brain – as a human being, my greatest tool – to the task of solving those problems, I have failed daily and repeatedly, though I had struck at the issues from every possible angle, seemingly asking all of the right questions.

(more…)

Falling asleep in Greece

Posted in Ancient, Poetry, Stories by Alex L. on August 10, 2010

Inside my paperback copy of One Hundred and One Famous Poems there is a yellowing bookmark. The book itself is rather plain: a Barnes & Noble publication with a faux-marbled cover and many sentimental poems, all rhyming. Nevertheless, the editor of the collection had taken great care in elevating this rather drab idea for a book into an endearing compilation of verse. He had even written his preface as a contemporary poem, meaningful line breaks and all. It ends: “It is the purpose of this little volume to enrich, ennoble, / encourage. And for man, who has learned to love / convenience, it is hardly larger than his concealing pocket.”

Maybe it was for that portable quality that I had decided to take the book with me on my three-week study abroad trip to Greece in the summer of 2006. It went halfway around the world with me and returned to the United States with a new bookmark: a receipt of purchase from an Athenian cafe. The receipt-bookmark, as I mentioned, now looks aged, and the ink has smudged deeper into the paper and lightened to a gray in the process. The top of it has creased where it protruded beyond the dimensions of the book, and on that portion is written in Greek letters the name of the establishment from which it came: *DIOGENES*.

Diogenes Cafe is located in the Plaka neighborhood of Athens, just below the base of the Acropolis, and its name strangely fit the purpose of my visits during that summer. During the trip, I lived with a group of about twenty American students from my university. When I felt like being as reclusive as the famous philosopher Diogenes (who lived in a tub in the marketplace of ancient Athens), I would walk from our hotel, then meander up the cobblestone alleys of the Plaka to the Diogenes Cafe, order a small cup of strong Greek coffee and a delicious local dessert of yogurt and honey, and read, sometimes from the small book of poetry that I had brought with me.

Reading poems in sequence, one after another, from a collection compiled by an editor is somewhat like watching a movie where every scene is acted by different characters in new settings and portraying unique storylines. Luckily the poems of this particular compilation were arranged with heart and style, so the expectations created by one author’s verse would be fulfilled by the emotions evoked in the next. The rhyming words ebbed and flowed from poem to poem like the waves of Homer’s wine-dark Mediterranean Sea, which wasn’t far away from me at the time.

(more…)