Small Print, Lots of Names, Too Many Details

During March, I plunged into reading, tackling some two serious reads as part of several challenges on LibraryThing. I blogged about the idea of reading challenges on my education blog. “Gamifying” reading can be a way to expand your reading options or, in my case, dig into some of the many books I have purchased and never read. There are lots of books on the shelves these days.

Here’s the list. I’ve marked the challenge books:

Team of Rivals and All the King’s Men were both long, serious books, but also incredibly engaging. Well written narratives with, whether fiction or non, compelling characters who show the full range of human emotion, inspiration and ambition. I filled in with more light reads although Grasshopper Jungle, a dystopian, end-of-the-world young adult book, managed to provide some real insight into the teen heart and mind within its dark comedic tone.

By the end of the month, however, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to finish the last challenge book I had planned for the month. A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin met the challenge of being about someone who was part of WW I but was much longer than I thought. I’m old school that way: I judge a book by its girth in the physical world. I haven’t gotten used to judging it by its dots. I dove in with just two days until the end of the month and enjoyed what I read but then stalled out when it became clear that I was not going to meet the challenge. I’ll get back to it but for now with Spring luring me into the garden, I just don’t have time to dig in the way I need to for such a tome.

Since I try not to bring screens to bed, I needed an analog book to read. In the spirit of World War I and feeling a little guilty about Helprin, I picked up The First World War by John Keegan. I bought this book after reading Ken Follett’s The Fall of Giants, thinking I wanted to know more about WW I. While the content was interesting and the book was well written, it had small print, lots of names, too many details for me to really enjoy it. I’m still not sure I know how the war started except that the nations had all geared up for war so any excuse would have probably led to the disaster. I really felt like I needed an atlas, a primer in pre-WW I nations and a “who’s who” list. I may get back to it some day but for now, it’s way MORE than I want to know.

Fortunately, I was saved by a trip to the Green Valley Book Fair near Harrisonburg, Virginia. My trip yielded a small pile of books, and I started reading The Heart of Everything That Is, a biography of Red Cloud, in the hotel room that evening. It was an engaging, sometimes irreverent history, unbiased in its brutally honest depictions of both white and Native Americans. I finished it quickly and then discovered I didn’t have the energy to go back to the two WW I books that were waiting.

So, prompted by a drive across the state that went through Prince Edward County, I picked up Israel on the Appomattox, the story of a community of freed blacks created near Farmville. It’s been on the shelf for some time now. So, I’m one chapter in and just mired in the small print, lots of names and too many details.

I love history and historical fiction so what’s the problem? Why the Red Cloud bio but not the WW I history? The purpose of the text seems to be the difference for me. The biography included historical details, but the primary focus of the book was to tell the story. Not every thread was pursued, not every moment of every event filled in. We didn’t get a long bio of every person mentioned but followed a few important figures.  And, I didn’t have a sense that there was going to be a test at the end. In the end, I probably remember more of the details that were included in The Heart of Everything That Is (because there weren’t quite so many of them), and I have a good general sense of what happened in the mid-19th century American west.

I may be ready for WW I and Prince Edward County at some point in the future, but not right now…my free reading time is often limited to before bed, and small print, lots of names and too many details are not really appealing. I feel like I am completing required reading rather than really enjoying myself. I want a light but interesting story that is engaging but not overwhelming. Maybe I’ll try WW I from a different angle. At the book fair, I found Elsie & Mairi Go to War by Diane Atkinson. It’s the true life story of two women who worked as ambulance drivers during the great war. It’s got a welcoming cover, a decently sized font, and the first prologue is immediately engaging:

Eighteen-year-old Mairi and thirty-year-old Elise Knocker, divorcee and mother of a young son, were madcap motorbikers who had met while roaring around the Hampshire and Dorset lanes, and had competed in motorbike and sidecar trials for the last year.

Here’s history wrapped in a story with the kind of compelling characters that made Team of Rivals and All the King’s Men such riveting reads.

Of Textbooks and Serendipitous Reading

Tim’s thoughtful Assorted Stuff blog post about textbooks coincided with my reading of Blood: Stories of Life and Death from the Civil War, an anthology of mostly primary source documents. While it didn’t offer specific dates and times like a textbook would, it provided a human view of the time and, as Tim pointed out, could easily be supplemented with material available on the web to create a completely serviceable “textbook.”   I haven’t ever been a fan of textbooks–especially history–because in trying to get it all in, they inevitably have to pick and choose about both what to leave in and what to leave out, what to emphasize and what to gloss over, and, in the end, leave us with the impression that historical truth in the guise of dates and names somehow exists.  Plus, they are really just boring.  As I’ve written before, I think we can use the media to make history generally more engaging, even (horrors!) at the expense of complete accuracy.

Because, as we’re learning in my own state, textbooks themselves have no great claim to correctness.  And here’s where the serendipitous reading comes in: as I’ve been drafting this entry, I picked up a book that has been on my shelf for some time, right next to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me.  A quote from Zinn graces the front cover, recommending this book to every citizen, and I’m not sure what I thought it was about, but it turns out it focuses on high school American history textbooks.

I am not very far along but had to share this quote as it seems to sum up my own sense of the real problem with using textbooks to teach.  This chapter focuses on the myth of Columbus’s discovery of America, and Loewen provides a table that outlines all the possible voyages to America prior to Columbus.  They go back thousands of years and have varying levels of empirical support.  Loewen points out that they are also not mentioned in most textbooks and suggests that we could really teach students something about history if they were:

The evidence for each of these journeys offers fascinating glimpses into the societies and cultures that existed on both sides of the Atlantic and in Asia before 1492. They also reveal controversies among those who study the distant past.  If textbooks allowed for controversy, they could show students which claims rest on strong evidence, which on softer ground. As they challenged students to make their own decisions as to what probably happened, they would also be introducing students to the various methods and forms of evidence–oral history, written records, cultural similarities, linguistic changes, human blood types, pottery, archaeological dating, plant migrations–that researchers use to derive knowledge about the distant past. Unfortunately, textbooks seem locked into a rhetoric of certainty. James West Davidson and Mark H. Lytle, coauthors of the textbook The United States–A History of the Republic, have also written After the Fact, a book for college history majors in which they emphasize that history is not a set of facts but a series of arguments, issues, and controversies. Davidson and Lytle’s high school textbook, however, like its competitors, presents history as answers, not questions.

The “rhetoric of certainty” is just a perfect description of the whole process of standardizing history and presenting it in a textbook.  Wish I had coined it…but Loewen did and I am looking forward to reading the rest of the book.  I love it when a book appears just when I need it.  Now, I suppose there are historians who will question Loewen’s ideas but that’s another post.

A Window On Slavery and the South

It felt like it took a long time, but I finally finished The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed.  I am a fan of Thomas Jefferson, a brilliant, complex man whose paradoxes demonstrate his humanity.  This book spends a lot of time examining those paradoxes.

Because Gordon-Reed refers to the Hemings, Wayles, and Jefferson using their familial relationships (ie, Sally Hemings was Martha Wayles Jefferson’s half sister since both were offspring of John Wayles, Jefferson’s father-in-law) the reader is struck throughout by the fact that these people are all related!  And yet the white members seemed to feel no compunction about selling off their relatives.  There was this huge black hole in the Southern vision that allowed them to move through their lives without really seeing those relationships.

The book was almost overwhelmingly detailed considering that so much of what she was writing about was speculation.  We don’t know why James Hemings committed suicide but Gordon-Reed was able to give an overview of why other enslaved and free blacks did so, at least giving us some insight into what might have motivated James.

One point she makes throughout is that the owners write the history.  As she considers the affect of Hemings’s story on Jefferson’s white family, she describes how they, “for the benefit of the historians who they knew would one day come calling, fashioned an image of life at Monticello designed in part to obscure her relevance” (Location 257).

She also tries to help the reader see things from Sally’s point of view despite having nothing in her own words.  For instance, she spends a fair amount of time discussing why neither James nor Sally Hemings chose to stay in France even though all they had to do was petition the French court.  Her paragraph on understanding love is one of the best in the book:

Love has been many things throughout history: the simple comfort of the familiar, having a person to know and being known by that person in return; a connection born of shared experiences, an irrational joy in another’s presence; a particular calming influence that one member of the couple may exert on the other, or that they both provide to one another.  A combination of all these and myriad other things can go into making one person wish to stay tied to another.  Anyone who is not in the couple–that is, everyone else in the world–will not understand precisely how or why it works for two people (Location 6612).

In other words…we simply can’t know or judge what happened except by recognizing that we are doing so without complete understanding. Later, as she questions aloud for the reader why neither James nor Sally contacted abolitionists when they were in Philadelphia, she cautions again about making judgments based on our own experiences.  She writes, “One should resist the temptation to say that when a person does not make the choice one would have made, that person must have been forced or tricked into it or deny that he had any choice at all” (Location 8983).

I found the story of Sally’s sister Mary particularly illustrative of the paradoxical nature of these relationships in the 18th century.  Mary had been leased to Thomas Bell, a business owner in Charlottesville.  The two developed a relationship that included children.  Eventually, Bell bought Mary and they lived together in the town.  He never freed her in his lifetime and Gordon-Reed suggests this is because he could use slavery as a cover for their activities.  The law would have prohibited them marrying if he did free her.  But as we’ve seen, Southerners turned a blind eye to relationships between white male owners and black female slaves.  Gordon-Reed writes, “Slavery provided a ‘polite’ cover for what would otherwise be illegal fornication” (Location 7425).  She quotes RTW Duke, who lived in Charlottesville at the same time as Hemings’s and Bell’s grandchildren.  He describes the morality of the time as “easy” in relationship to what people did and how people reacted to their actions.  Duke said, “No on paid attention to a man’s method of living” (Location 7382).

I was surprised by this revelation, as Gordon-Reed thought we would.  She writes:

Eighteenth-century people like Bell, Hemings, Jefferson, and their neighbors fit the popular conception neither of the Puritans nor of the later Victorians, though there is often a tendency to read the perceived values of one society forward and the other backward to cover the people who lived in the interim.  There were standards of behavior, as there are in every period, but the era of Bell, Jefferson, and Hemings was practical–more libertarian–about the ways of human beings and sex” (Location 7387).

Once again, the historian reminds us that we can’t judge history by our own time.

But Gordon-Reed did use history to comment, often somewhat wryly, on our own time.  One of my favorites related to “pro-family legislators.”  Jefferson’s obsession with developing the United States had a negative impact on both the black and white members of his family:

Much as he spoke of his family as the center of his universe, he, like many public men before and after him, arranged his life so that he spent large amounts of time away from his family doing what he thought was the real business of his life (Location 11664).

The book was well worth reading, if a bit dense at points.  Gordon-Reed has done her due diligence.  Yet, she still manages to tell a compelling story.

No Place Is Safe

I learned two things yesterday:
1. My husband doesn’t read this blog.
2. Even the linen closet isn’t safe.

I learned these at the same time when, sparring a bit over books, he told me he had discovered the books in the linen closet. I replied that I had wondered if he read my blog. He looked a little confused. No, he said, I needed toilet paper.

So, I had to explain that I had overflowed all the available spaces and had moved on to the linen closet in the hopes that he would not look there and that I was sorry I was hogging the toilet paper.

But the up side is that we are in the midst of planning a new home and I’m going to get a library complete with a wall of books to which I can attach a rolling ladder like this one. It’s like the one in Becoming Jane that I just saw in Pennsylvania. If I didn’t already have books to read, I’d add rereading Austen to the list.

I finished Dee Brown’s The Fetterman Massacre in a day or so. Amazing detail of the months leading up to the event itself and lots of heavy foreshadowing about who would die. It is really a snapshot of life on the edge of civilization and I just can’t believe that women and children went along! I’m not sure I would be willing in endure that hardship for sort of murky reasons. They had a much greater faith in themselves and their country than we do now. It was a dangerous faith that led to the destruction of the Native Americans whose own faith in their culture also contributed to the downfall. Two conflicting world views clashed in those lonely places. In a way, it reminded me of Hadrian’s Wall, by William Deitrich, which described a similar moment in a far distant continent.

And now, it is back to The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon. Jefferson is in Paris and sending for his youngest daughter who will arrive with Sally Hemings. When I taught middle school, we read a book about a supposed child of the two named Harriet. It was called Wolf By the Ears by Ann Rinaldi. It filled in, at least fictionally, some of the things that Gordon can’t tell us: what it was like to be owned by a blood relative and how it felt to have to decide between the two races.