What Will We Leave Behind?

Michel de Montaigne.
Michel de Montaigne. Image via Wikipedia

Here’s a smart piece that addresses the issue, from The New York Times Magazine:

But increasingly we’re not leaving a record of life by culling and stowing away physical journals or shoeboxes of letters and photographs for heirs or the future. Instead, we are, collectively, busy producing fresh masses of life-affirming digital stuff: five billion images and counting on Flickr; hundreds of thousands of YouTube videos uploaded every day; oceans of content from 20 million bloggers and 500 million Facebook members; two billion tweets a month. Sites and services warehouse our musical and visual creations, personal data, shared opinions and taste declarations in the form of reviews and lists and ratings, even virtual scrapbook pages. Avatars left behind in World of Warcraft or Second Life can have financial or intellectual-property holdings in those alternate realities. We pile up digital possessions and expressions, and we tend to leave them piled up, like virtual hoarders. At some point, these hoards will intersect with the banal inevitability of human mortality. One estimate pegs the number of U.S. Facebook users who die annually at something like 375,000.

I think about this a lot, maybe because I write for a living as a journalist and non-fiction author. I like to think my work will live on for decades or more, stored as it is within the databases of the many newspapers and magazines I’ve written for since the 1970s. I’ve written many personal stories for publication in print: about getting married, getting divorced, returning to church, and know that millions of strangers who have read them, like those who read my blogs, “know” me as a result.

But I don’t have kids or even nephews or nieces, so I also know that all my beloved family photos, and those of my sweetie — my favorite image, being cuddled by his Mom as a baby — will end up as detritus or, maybe, in some flea market bin.

Same with my journals and notebooks, decades of insights and observations. Gone.

But I worry about the loss of all the paper artifacts so many of us now disdain and no longer use — letters sent through the mail and kept, whether love letters or documents — that make up our individual and collective histories.

On the morning of 9/11, one of the most poignant and terrifying artifacts were the burned shreds of paper that floated all the way into my sweetie’s Brooklyn backyard from the fallen Twin Towers: invoices, letterhead, faxes…

Think of all the men and women we’ve come to know only through their letters and journals over the centuries, even milennia, from Herodotus to Pepys, whose diary of daily life from 1660 to 1669 is considered one of of the world’s greatest. I love (geek that I am) Montaigne’s travel journal, from 1580.

One of my favorite songs, Virginia Woolf, by the Indigo Girls captures the profound connections we have with the long-dead through their writing:

They published your diary
And that’s how I got to know you
The key to the room of your own and a mind without end
And here’s a young girl
On a kind of a telephone line through time
And the voice at the other end comes like a long lost friend
So I know I’m all right
Life will come and life will go
Still I feel it’s all right
Cause I just got a letter to my soul
And when my whole life is on the tip of my tongue
Empty pages for the no longer young
The apathy of time laughs in my face
You say each life has it’s place

The hatches were battened
The thunderclouds rolled and the critics stormed
The battle surrounded the white flag of your youth
If you need to know that you weathered the storm
Of cruel mortality
A hundred years later I’m sitting here living proof

What will you leave behind?

Does it matter?

It's Not Just 'Dates, Facts And Dead People' — A New History Channel Series Tries To De-Snooze History

The "Darnley Portrait" of Elizabeth ...
Queen Elizabeth I, circa 1575. Image via Wikipedia

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?

Even Michelangelo Got Paid Late, New Vatican Archives' Book Reveals

A Ignudo, Sistine Chapel.
Another artist who waited to get paid for his work...in 1550. Image via Wikipedia

The Vatican has unlocked its archives, publishing them in a new book, reports the Toronto Star:

The book, $87.23 at Amazon.ca Saturday (but temporarily out of stock), is being published in English, French, Italian and Dutch editions.

And for the truly obsessive collector, there’s a limited edition available for $8,400. Only 33 copies will be printed on felt and hand-stitched, and three are already reserved – one for Pope Benedict XVI, one for the Vatican Library and one for, what else, the Vatican Secret Archives.

The original letters, whether written on parchment, silk or birch bark, are reproduced in exquisite detail, and a modern commentary accompanies each document.

They range from the sublime to the ridiculous – a 1586 letter from Mary Queen of Scots, written to Pope Sixtus V several weeks before her execution, to a 1246 demand by Grand Khan Güyük, the grandson of Genghis Khan, ordering Pope Innocent IV to travel to Central Asia, his “kings” in tow, to “pay service and homage to us” as an act of “submission.”

Otherwise, it warns, “you shall be our enemy.”

Also included:

  • In what surely must rank as one of history’s most impertinent “pay up” letters, Michelangelo writes in 1550 to demand that the Vatican pay his bill, then three months overdue, and complains that his work on the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica has been interrupted by a papal conclave;
  • Letters from Henry VIII and the peers of England written in 1530 about the king’s “Great Matter” – divorce, of course, and a matter near and dear to the hearts of any Tudors fan;
  • The document conferring the Order of the Golden Spur on Mozart in 1770;
  • The 1493 papal bull “inter cetera” of Alexander VI, awarding the New World, as the Americas were then known, to Spain;
  • Documents from the heresy trials of the Knights Templar in 1308-10;
  • The sentence of the Council of Pisa in 1409 deposing popes Benedict XIII and Gregory XII, and
  • The papal bull condemning and excommunicating Martin Luther in 1520-21.
  • Catholic News Service reports:
  • The new book lets readers see some of the things the academics have seen, including handwritten letters to Pope Pius IX from Abraham Lincoln and from Jefferson Davis.Both letters were written in 1863 while the U.S. Civil War raged on.The letter makes no mention of the war, but assures the pope that King is “well informed of the relative interests” of both the United States and the Vatican “and of our sincere desire to cultivate and strengthen the friendship and good correspondence between us.”On the other hand, the letter from Jefferson Davis, president of the secessionist Confederate States, is filled with references to the war and its “slaughter, ruin and devastation.”Only the first page of the letter and Davis’ signature are included in the book, but the Vatican historian’s commentary about the letter includes quotations from the second page as well.

    The commentator said Davis wrote to Pope Pius after the pope had written to the archbishops of New York and New Orleans “urging them to employ every possible means to end the bloodshed and restore peace.”

    Davis wrote to the pope about the suffering caused by “the war now waged by the government of the United States against the states and people over which I have been chosen to preside.” He assured the pope that the people of the South are fighting only to defend themselves and to ensure they can “live at peace with all mankind under our own laws and institutions.”

  • President Lincoln’s letter is a formal, diplomatic request that Pope Pius accept Rufus King as the U.S. representative to the Vatican.

    Japan's 'History Girls', Fed Up With Today's Guys, Turn To Men Of The Distant Past

    Samurai walking follwed by a servant, Galerie ...
    A samurai.Image via Wikipedia

    Here’s a craze for you — men of the 16th century. Sooooo macho!

    Japanese women are turning into “history girls” idolizing men who they’re sure were strong, brave, manly. They’re buying books and comics, watching films, swooning over guys who were very definitely not herbivores, the slow-moving contemporary Japanese men so named because they are not interested in flesh, i.e. sex, and sex with women.

    I can see the appeal. I’ve always thought the Voyageurs were pretty cool.

    The Voyageurs arose during a time when most of the Midwest was under French control, and the territorial government in Montréal acted as a shipping hub and regulated the number of furs that passed through. To retain its value, beaver had to stay rare in Europe. Unfortunately, hundreds of coureurs du bois, or woodsmen fur smugglers, threatened to glut the market and drive down the price of beaver. So, to control trapping, Montréal issued permits to trading companies, allowing them to officially sponsor teams of traveling fur traders called Voyageurs.

    Voyageur teams made their living paddling giant Montréal canoes across the Great Lakes and only slightly smaller North canoes up and down the Mississippi, Illinois and other rivers, trading axes, knives, beads, and other goods for beaver pelts. When loaded, these massive canoes could fit eight Voyageurs and up to 8,000 pounds of cargo! The Voyageurs not only had to navigate the rivers with this large load, but also carry both canoe and goods over the long overland portages between rivers. Compare the physically taxing Voyageur struggle over portages with today’s mechanical barges, locks, and dams. Learn about these technological advances and their historical context with a visit to Illinois Waterway Visitor’s Center along the Illinois River Road.

    If you were going to date a guy from history, who would you pick?