Archive for February, 2007

June 2003 Reads

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For those of us who don’t have the longest attention span, a compendium offers a welcome diversion. Collections of essays and book excerpts offer a diversity of subjects, and give you a sense of which books or subjects might be worth more investigation. Two of my favorite authors, John McPhee and David McCullough, both offer such books. From the history of the birch-bark canoe, to profiles of the very first airplane pilots, here are this month’s reads.

The John McPhee Reader, John McPhee

One of the best things about John McPhee’s writing is the diversity of his subjects. Since 1965 he has published 29 books on topics such as the history of the birch-bark canoe, the distinctive seclusion of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens region, and the geologic origins of the western U.S. Along the way, he has picked up several awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World, a very readable history of the geologic origins of the Western United States- all 4.6 billion years’ worth. McPhee is not a historian in the classical sense, yet for anyone wanting a very deep perspective on any of his chosen subjects, you would be hard-pressed to find more well-researched writing. In the John McPhee Reader, you are provided with chapter excerpts from his early books (1965-1976) including Encounters withMcPhee_Reader_cover.jpg the ArchDruid, a narrative of the author’s travels and discussions with three experts offering very different perspectives on the environmental crisis, and Coming into the Country, a rich account of the history and future of the Alaskan wilderness and its people. The selections are well-chosen by virtue of the fact that they can stand up reasonably on their own apart from the context of the corresponding volume. McPhee’s writing is of a journalistic nature; you get as objective and detailed a perspective on any given subject as you could hope for in a single book. But for me, what makes McPhee’s writing truly great is that he is able to convey his experiences and perspective in a style and perspective that virtually anyone can appreciate. This was the first McPhee book I ever read, and I have since read another dozen or so, with plans to collect and read them all.

Brave Companions, David McCullough

David McCullough is probably my favorite living historian, and the first exposure I had to his work was Brave Companions. This book is a collection of 17 short biographies of various historical figures- some well-known, others somewhat obscure to the average person. The common theme here is pioneering, whether it be of a physical, intellectual, technological, artistic, or spiritual nature. Some of the characters profiled include Alexander von Humboldt, whose scientific expeditions to South America at the turn of the 19th century eclipsed Lewis & Clark’s journeys in terms of physical challenge and scientific importance. Louis Agassiz, anotherBrave_Companions_cover.jpg subject, is known as the “Father of Glaciology,” and was the first scientist to realize that glaciers in fact moved, and formulate a theory that once a great Ice Age had once gripped the Earth; later he served as head of the Smithsonain Institute. Others profiled include Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles and Anne Lindbergh, and Frederic Remington. What I like about this book is that most of the characters are ones that I would probably never know too much about had I not picked up this book. And their stories are more than interesting- they are fascinating. The story of the earliest pilots made my palms sweat just reading about some of the flights they took- remember, their planes were primitive by today’s standards, and they were the first to ever try a “barrel-roll.” As the name of the book implies, this collection also tries to point out that these courageous pioneers did not accomplish theur feats alone. Humboldt was accompanied by a friend who was a botanist. Charles Lindbergh’s wife, Anne, accompanied him on many of his early flights, and Stowe’s husband played a crucial role in her success.

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May 2003 Reads

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One of the most interesting things about From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple is the fact that the author’s great-great-uncle helped relieve various monastic libraries in Athos of priceless religious manuscripts on a trip to the area in the 1840′s. From the former Byzantine empire, to recent Latin American political history, here are this month’s reads.

From the Holy Mountain, by William Dalrymple

I like good travelogues because if they are well-written, they have an opportunity to provide unique insight by blending historical settings and events with modern perspective. From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple is an account of his experiences while traveling through the eastern Mediterranean in 1994. His goal was to retrace a spiritual journey undertaken by a 6th century monk, John Moschos, who traveled around the Byzantine empire before the subsequent introduction and growth of Islam. Along the way he provides a glimpse of what life is like for the remaining Christian population still living in the Middle East today. This book is moreHolyMountainCover_2.jpg the account of a quest by a young, Cambridge-educated Roman Catholic Scot than travel narrative, as Dalrymple shares many of his personal views along the way. His account takes the reader from northern Greece to Turkey, through the Holy Lands, and finally to Egypt. Along the way, he recounts his encounters with what remains of the Christian faith in those predominantly Islamic countries- ancient monasteries, monks bitterly aware of their shrinking numbers, and a small minority of Christians trying to co-exist with their neighbors. These encounters range from funny to tragic and everywhere in between, but are always relayed from a humanistic point of view. For folks that want to learn more about some interesting chapters in Christianity’s history not taught in high school, this is a good book.

Looking for History- Dispatches from Latin America, by Alma Guillermoprieto

Until I picked up Looking for History- Dispatches from Latin America by Alma Guillermoprieto, the most I knew about recent Latin American history was that Columbia is synonymous with drugs, and most of the governments are portrayed as corrupt on the news. After reading this collection of 17 essays (all previously published) ILookingforHistory_cover.jpg feel like I have a much better perspective on the political struggles, violence, and pure confusion that surrounds life in Columbia, Mexico, and Cuba. I learned about important political figures (past and present) including Evita Peron, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Vicente Fox. I gained a deeper understanding of the absolute madness that is guerrilla warfare by reading about Colombia’s right wing death squads and the rebels who live in the hills, and how they actual co-mingle their ranks. I got the sense that this author knows the history of these countries fairly well. Guillermoprieto was born in Mexico, has lived in places like Columbia and Brazil, and currently lives in Mexico City. I’ve been told that another one of her books, The Heart that Bleeds, is even better. If you want a good collection of well-written essays that at least scratch the surface on this subject, you will enjoy this book.

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April 2003 Reads

In American Scripture, Making the Declaration of Independence, Pauline Maier asserts that the historical context and basis for this famous document can be traced as far back as the 14th century English monarchy. From the origins of the Declaration of Independence, to the foxholes of Hurtgen Forest, here are this month’s reads.“…the regiment began to march, through the debris of the previous day’s battle. To Captain Robert Miller, the beach ‘looked like something out of Dante’s inferno’.” In Stephen Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers, the story of the Allied forces’ struggle from June 7, 1944 (the day following the D-Day landing at Normandy) through the end of the war in the European theater in May, 1945 is told from the perspective of the privates, corporals, sergeants, lieutenants, and captains who experienced it. This is a very absorbing read for anyone wanting to learn more about what war is like from a foot soldier’s and tanker’s perspective. These guys had to endure sub-zero temperatures (often with just the clothes on their back), dig foxholes in frozen ground, witness their buddies get killed, and endure all of the vividly depicted horrors of war. Ambrose relied on the thousands of personal interviews he conducted and collected during his lifetime, and excerpts from those interviews are liberally dispersed throughout the book, which I found very interesting. He even includes statements from German infrantrymen and officers who had to endure the retreat back from the Siegfried Line towards the end of the war. Many of the infrantry units profiled went through well over 100% turnover before the war was over. That’s right- more than 100%. You will view the concept “sacrifice” in a different light.

“The Declaration was at first forgotten almost entirely, then recalled and celebrated by Jeffersonian Republicans, and later elevated into something akin to holy writ, which made it a prize worth capturing on behalf of one cause after another.” In American Scripture, Making the Declaration of Independence, Pauline Maier provides a thorough and interesting read on the history of one of history’s most glorified documents. According to Maier, what began as a simple exercise in trying to compile some good material for her students at MIT evolved into a full-blown analysis of the origins, near-death, and return to near beatification of the Declaration of Independence. A quick primer on the Revolution is provided, focusing on the strong attachment that early Americans had to England and English laws, and the strong aversion that many folks had to separation from the mother country. A detailed account of the drafting of the documentant and the debate surrounding its editing and final publication is provided, which filled in a lot of gaps for me having focused much of my reading on the revolutionary struggle itself. Towards the end of the book, Maier provides a very good analysis of how Lincoln elevated the status of the Declaration to “Magna Carta status” during his political career, culminating in the Gettysburg address. I like American Scripture for several reasons. First, it is well written. Second, Maier succeeds in wiping the dust off the venerable document itself, providing an objective and well-researched account of the history of not only the document itself, but also the precedents and 18th century colonial thinking surrounding independence and liberty, which shaped Jefferson’s and the other contributors’ viewpoints. Along that vein, the text itself reads more like an investigative journal article for The Atlantic rather than a history book, which I appreciated immensely. Finally, I came away with a very strong appreciation for how difficult it truly was for Jefferson and his colleagues to sum up all of their grievances, desires, and vision for the country in one document, much less express it in so eloquent a manner.

As it is April, I thought it timely to review April 1865: The Month that Saved America by Jay Winik. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomatox was not a foregone conclusion, even though the Confederate forces were all but destroyed. A number of Lee’s officers were promoting the idea of the army not surrendering at all, but rather dispersing and regrouping in the countryside as an outfit of guerrilla fighters who would harass federal troops and essentially terrorize northern civilians. As it turns out, our country was quite literally wrecked on a number of levels- economically, politically, spiritually, and physically. Winik points out that before the war, the country’s inhabitants still viewed themselves as a loose collection of states, a “union” of geographically and politically disparate peoples, and not a “nation” with a collective identity and shared sense of destiny. In Winik’s opinion, we did not start to forge a national identity until after suffering through the war and Reconstruction. He does a good job of illustrating how precarious a situation the nation found itself in at the conclusion of the war. April 1865 recounts the difficult decisions that faced Grant, Lee, Lincoln, Davis, and Sherman during the final days of the war. What I especially liked about this book was the attention paid to the backgrounds of each of these historical figures, which provided a human perspective to the dilemnas each of them faced. This is not your average Civil War read. I recommend it.

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Interview a Vet

I first became interested in interviewing veterans after watching a television interview with Stephen Ambrose, in which he described the Veteran’s History Project , an ongoing effort sponsored by the Library of Congress to collect first-hand accounts from veterans of 20th century conflicts. The need for this effort, according to Ambrose, is great since we are “currently losing World War II veterans at a rate of 1,100 to 1,500 a day.”I found that rate astonishing. I thought about the veterans I know, many who served in Vietnam and the Gulf War, and some who fought in Korea and World War II. I found it strange to think that one day they would all be gone, and that I would soon live in a time in which there were no remaining veterans of World War II. Likewise, my kids would someday read an article about that the few remaining Vietnam vets gathering for some type of ceremony. I thought that volunteering might not only be an incredibly satisfying experience, but would also (at least in a small way) serve the interests of future generations who will want to know more about our involvement, and hear the oral history accounts of the men and women who served. Ambrose went on to explain, and I’m paraphrasing now, “Just think about how wonderful it would be if today we were able to hear Lee’s or Washington’s accounts of the events that surrounded them.” I joined the effort, and can honestly say it has been a wonderful experience.

What is it?

The mission of the Veteran’s History Project is to collect and preserve first-hand accounts of U.S. veterans of the following 20th Century wars:

* World War I (1914-1920)
* World War II (1939-1946)
* Korean War (1950-1955)
* Vietnam War (1961-1975)
* Persian Gulf War (1990-1995)

Here’s the intro text from the Veteran’s History Project website (http://www.loc.gov/vets/):

“There are 19 million war veterans living in the United States today, but every day we lose 1,500 of them. Motivated by a desire to honor our nation’s war veterans for their service and to collect their stories and experiences while they are still among us, the United States Congress created the Veterans History Project… Public Law 106-380 calls upon the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress to collect and preserve audio- and video-taped oral histories, along with documentary materials such as letters, diaries, maps, photographs, and home movies, of America’s war veterans and those who served in support of them… Knowing that this and future generations of Americans have much to learn from those who served, we at the Library of Congress and the American Folklife Center have embraced this national effort. We encourage you to read the information and instructions on this Web site and to join us in making the Veterans History Project a success. The Veteran’s History Project needs volunteers to conduct interviews with veterans of the 20th century.”

How do I get involved?

It is very simple to participate. First, you need to find a veteran willing to be interviewed for the project. Talk to friends and relatives who might know of a willing participant. If you don’t know any personally, there are many organizations that can put you in contact with veterans, including state chapters of Veteran’s of Foreign Wars (VFW), the American Legion, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Japanese American Veterans Association, Vietnam Veterans Association, Military Chaplains Association, The Retired Enlisted Association, and the Women Airforce Service Pilots of WWII. Next, you can request an interview kit via an online form at the Veteran’s History Projext website (http://www.loc.gov/vets/), or download the forms directly from there. For information on actually performing, recording, organizing, and submitting your interviews, there is a guide on the website as well.

If you’re already involved, drop me a note at neil@thinkaboutit.com and let me know if you have a cool interview to post on Think About It.

Add comment February 13th, 2007

Welcome

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Welcome to Think About It. This is a website devoted primarily to my love of history.

I’ve always loved history. Well, let me clarify that- I complained just as loudly as any other high school student who was force-fed dates and names like buckets of castor oil. And like most students, I often remarked to myself, and occasionally to my teachers, the question posed a million times each school year by kids all over the planet- “how in the world will memorizing [insert fact here] help me when I get out of school?” Not that memorizing the date of the Battle of Hastings hasn’t proven useful over the years (it’s 1066 A.D., for trivia’s worth). But like most people, I found it difficult to grasp history’s true worth, let alone stay awake during lectures.
My parents were born in Ireland, and we went there a few times as a family when I was young. I remember going to Cashel, a castle, during one of our day trips. “The Rock of Cashel” is just outside of Dublin on the road to Cork, and is built upon a hill of solid rock. It was built in the 4th century and was the seat of kings and medieval bishops for 900 years, continuing as an important castle until the early 17th century. Cashel was the original fortification of the Eoghanachta, or kings of Munster; Brian Boru, a legendary Irish king, was crowned there in 977. As a boy, I gazed upon this fortress from the street below, and began to imagine all of the battles that must have been waged on that very hill.

As I stood within the walls of the castle with my father and a cousin, I suddenly became very aware that my shoes were touching the very stone upon which these ancient people had walked, run, played, fought, and died. I could run my hands along walls that had seen those battles, along with great feasts and other important events. I peered through the long slits cut into the massive stone walls which protected the inhabitants from the arrows of attacking archers. I imagined the hearths ablaze with fires, the gates and walls guarded by sentries, and the halls busy with activity. I thought to myself- what a cool place to have lived in! I told my Dad what I was thinking. He smiled, and agreed that it must have been really something to have lived in such a place during such a time, though he gently pointed out many of the modern conveniences that weren’t available to kids back then. We talked about how tough it must have been to live and survive in such conditions.

As I grew older, and began to read a lot of history, I realized that I did love history- I just didn’t like the way it was taught to me in school. And while the subject of history isn’t exactly an ice-breaker in most daily conversations, I find that knowing more about current and past civilizations, cultures, religions, species, and even the earth itself has helped me to better understand and communicate with people from different backgrounds and experiences than my own. And as I begin to view the future as history that simply hasn’t happened yet, my perspective on how one can choose to spend one’s life sharpens, and I draw strength from knowing that countless numbers of people have encountered the same types of life challenges that we all face sooner or later- being a good husband and father, protecting your kids, making a career, doing the right thing, etc. The thing is, well-written history can bring alive people, places, and events that took place even thousands of years ago, and place them squarely in today’s context. It can teach us things, if we are willing to listen. It’s all a matter of perspective. To me, virtually everything is history, or certainly one day will be.

So what about the name, “Think About It?” For me, the term is meant simply to suggest that we all have much to gain from learning about important and interesting history. We gain a richer appreciation for our lives, and perhaps view it in the context of an opportunity, rather than as a given. As far as the site goes, Think About It will focus on many topics, including the history of ideas, exploration, music, film, technology, and the earth itself. This site will offer articles, commentary, book and film reviews, occasional guest articles, interviews, and links to other interesting sites. I hope you enjoy the topics and information put forth. Hopefully, history will be kind.

“…the science of History is a great bulwark against the stream of Time; in a way it checks this irresistible flood, it holds in a tight grasp whatever it can seize floating on the surface and will not allow it to slip away into the depths of Oblivion.” Anna Comnena (1083-1153)

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