I love reading history, probably because it’s basically revised, cleaned-up, multiply-sourced journalism — often called the first draft of history.
Right now I’m loving a biography of Queen Elizabeth I by British historian Anne Somerset. As unlikely as this sounds, it’s a page-turner. (Oddly enough, the image I’ve chosen here is the same one on my book’s cover, from the National Gallery.)
I confess, though, that one passage is truly memorable, in which a priest is being burned at the stake, too slowly because the wood is wet, and he begs his onlookers to fan the flames so he can die faster. No matter how gross, it’s hard not to picture, and remember that scene.
Yet so much of history, as presented to most of us along the way, is a big fat snooze, boringly taught and impatiently suffered through.
A recent piece in my favorite newspaper, the weekend Financial Times, looked at the problem and determined it was a case of “Too Much Hitler and the Henrys” — i.e. for British students anyway too narrow a focus on WWII and the Kings named Henry.
A new television series, “America: The Story of Us” began this week on April 25 and continues for six more Sundays on the History Channel. It’s the most ambitious project of its kind since Alistair Cooke’s 13-part “America: A Personal History of the United States, broadcast in 1972.
Reports The New York Times, the new series is:
“a naked attempt by the producers to rope in viewers whose experience of United States history may be limited to their school history classes. “In that attempt to make it feel epic, it’s actually quite refreshing to see big personalities commenting on what history means to them and what that moment in the story means to them, and how that has inspired them,” said Nancy Dubuc, the president and general manager of the History channel. “It sort of ups the entertainment value of the show.”
“It’s not about dates, facts and dead people,” she added. “It’s about presenting a very rich story in an engaging and entertaining way, and along the way, lo and behold, hopefully millions of people will watch something that they hadn’t anticipated they would watch.”
I read a lot of great women’s history – (check out anything written by Glenda Riley, a historian of the American West) — when I researched my first book, about American women and guns, and learned that entire swaths of Colorado and Wyoming had been homesteaded exclusively by women, for whom being armed and ready to shoot was a matter of life or death. Many women fought in the Civil War, even those heavily pregnant, their gender or condition undetected by their comrades in arms, and detailed in the great book, “They Fought Like Demons” by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook.
Too often, as women know, history books typically focus on wealth and power, those narratives told and driven by men. Women, confined for centuries to domestic or religious life, often seem almost invisible.
A wildly popular series for kids, (now available on DVD) is Horrible Histories, filled with gruesome/alluring details like the fact it took two swings to lop off Mary Queen of Scots’ head. The series has sold 11 million copies in the UK and 20 million worldwide, with the accompanying books translated into 31 languages.
Something is working when there’s such hunger for history amongst the young ‘uns.
Some of my favorite recent reads have been social histories of Paris, Roy Porter’s portraits of London and of England in the 18th. century. I enjoyed David McCullough’s history of the Brooklyn Bridge, although he skimped on the juicy details of how Washington Roebling’s wife Emily saved his butt; it was she who took charge of the project — this, in the male-dominated 1880s — after he fell ill with the bends.
I fell in love with well-told history when I read a history of medicine in my early teens, introducing me to a roster of heroes, from Hippocrates, Galen and Harvey to Jenner and Semmelweiss.
How many of you know — for example — that most babies born (in North America anyway), have an Apgar test within minutes of birth? Did you know the test is named for a woman, Virginia Apgar, a pilot and Columbia University’s first female medical professor?
What history taught in school — before you had a choice in college — do you remember best and why?
Do you ever read history now for pleasure? Which periods and authors do you like?