October 2011

Lessons Learned from History

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon

 

Please excuse the geek reference for a moment, but there is a recurring line in Battlestar Galactica (the recent remake of the series), a quote from their sacred texts, that goes somewhere along the lines of, "This has all happened before, and will all happen again."  That is kind of how I think of history, and why I think the study of history is so important -- there are so many parallels that we can draw to the past, and perhaps lessons that we can learn to avoid making the same mistakes again.

The other night, my husband and I watched a lecture by J. Rufus Fears on Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Learning from the mistakes in history is one of the central themes to his lecture on this lengthy work.  At the time that it was written, America was fighting for freedom from Britain, and the author, Edward Gibbon, actually served on Parliament for a while.  His papers and his works on Rome actually indicated what he thought that England should learn from the history of Rome's decline: among other things, the importance of setting up fair governments in one's colonies.

Lauren Weber, "In CHEAP We Trust"

 

Subtitled "The Story Of A Misunderstood American Virtue," I was particularly tickled to have bought this book on sale at the Kindle store for only $2. In CHEAP We Trust turned out to be a history book as much as anything else, with over half of the book dedicated to the topic of the history of thrift in America, from the founding fathers through to the post-war boom.
 
Weber makes a pretty convincing case that people were only ever thrifty because they had to be. I was pretty surprised by this, since I (along with I suspect many other Americans) thought that everyone was just, like, naturally frugal back in the day. But no, it was more that they just didn't have any money to spend, and nothing to spend it on even if they did.

Where Were You When...?

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Every generation has a defining moment in history.  A generation ago, the question everyone knew the answer to was, "Where were you when you heard JFK was shot?" or "Where were you when you heard Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated?"  Now, it's, "Where were you when you first heard the news on 9/11?"

Columbine is one such moment in history, so even if this book is recent history, I consider it history nonetheless.  Over twelve years ago, the entire nation watched and waited and wondered what exactly had gone on behind the walls of Columbine high school.  In Columbine, Dave Cullen does what nothing had yet done -- not the parent memoirs, the published diaries of the dead, the articles or interviews or police reports.  Cullen brings not just that terrible morning, but also the weeks and months and years leading up to it, to life.

Guaranteed to Surprise, Instruct -- and Humble

Indian Givers by Jack Weatherford

I could argue that in order to be compelling, a history book has to tell you something you don't already know -- because what's the point of reading it otherwise?  Maybe it argues a new point of view -- one that you agree with or not, as long as it presents new information.  Or maybe there's nothing controversial about it at all, maybe it's just something you haven't heard before.