Saturday, July 12, 2014

What can we learn from reading history ...

... even if we forget most of the details?

Dale Favier, who blogs as mole, offers some perceptive reflections on this question that I think are worth pondering. (Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for the tip.)  His piece is not that long, so you should read the whole thing, but here's most of it:
Reading Norman Davies' two volume history of Poland.

[JW: God's Playground. A wonderful book, that everyone should consider reading ... while bearing in mind that it is written from a particular perspective and driven by passionate sympathies that not all readers will necessarily share. But that's true of all great history.]

For a while I was off reading history. I thought of all the history I've read that's left almost no mark -- I know I've read a monumental history of Spain, for instance, thousands of pages long, and that all I clearly remember from it is that Cordoba was once a splendid Muslim city with a famous library. Shouldn't I maybe have read the Wikipedia entry instead? Years of my life have gone into reading these things. [....] Am I wasting my time?

I think I am not, but I'm not doing exactly what I thought I was when I started. When I was young and foolish, I thought I could learn all of history and have it all available in my head, or at least a lot of European history, or at least a lot of English history. Now I know that almost all this stuff will fall right back out of my head again. That doesn't necessarily mean it's not worth doing. There is another kind of knowledge building up, a synoptic sense of what people have done and will do, what sorts of organizations have succeeded, what sorts have failed, and some of the common notions of why. It's all terribly vague and unsatisfactory, and the more you read the more you realize how variable and subjective the notions are, but as it accumulates I find that I'm far less likely to be fooled by the demagogues and politicians of the moment. I'm no better at predicting the future than anyone else, but I recognize the rashness of betting on my predictions better than most. History has a way of wriggling out of what people expect.
That's Favier's general point. Reading history can add depth and solidity and sophistication to our understanding of human affairs, making it less narrow and thin and superficial, even if the way that works is admittedly "vague" and hard to pin down precisely. I think that's right.

Favier slides from that into a more specific point:
And there is a sense one gets for the fullness, depth, complexity of any one place and its people. [....] Each single one would reward a higher-power microscope with the same increase in complexity and variety.

That, too, is worth knowing: and you gradually obtain the conviction that the parts of the world that have not yet been given thousand-page histories by an Oxford or Harvard don are every bit as diverse and complex. [....] That, I guess, is what you really gain by reading these fat narrative histories: a sense for just how large the human universe is.
Yes, I think that's definitely part of what we can gain from reading history (aside from the intrinsic fascination and intellectual pleasures involved). Immersion in the particularities of other times, places, and peoples can expand our mental horizons by helping us break loose from the taken-for-granted parochialism of our own life-worlds. (And to lift a famous line by the novelist L.P. Hartley, the historical past of our own society is often "a foreign country" too.)

Actually, anthropology and sociology, including the most abstract forms of historical and comparative sociology, can also have those effects. But for many people, nothing beats the vivid immediacy and engagement of good narrative history. And the sweeping panoramic scenarios presented by those "fat narrative histories" can be especially liberating and mind-stretching.

But getting the full benefit of these possibilities requires reading a lot of histories, dealing with different subjects from different angles and interpretive perspectives. So keep at it.

—Jeff Weintraub