Summer Reading for Historians

Yes, we are all ecstatic that the semester is over.  For those history grad students pondering the link between history and fiction/literature (shout out to Derrida), here are a few non-history tomes to keep the juices flowing over the summer.

As a blanket statement, all historians should read War and Peace.  In 1869, Tolstoy published his rumination on the nature of history.  Believing that history belonged to the people, not just generals, politicians, and kings, Tolstoy was basically trying to write a social history – comparing the life of the military with the life of the civilian.  His humanizing portrayals of the tsar, Napoleon, and the Russian generals will forever alter your perceptions of those folks.  I know W&P can be scary, so our other 5 books are perfectly manageable.

1.  Babel Tower – AS Byatt.  For the linguists in the crowd, Babel Tower explores themes of language.  The third book in the Frederica Potter quadrilogy has our intrepid heroine forging a life for herself in the intellectual circles of 1960s London.  Gender and women’s historians will enjoy the re-creation of the limited choices intelligent women had during that time and can debate how much has changed since.  You don’t need to read the other books in the quadrilogy to understand this book.  The Frederica Potter quadrilogy is a rarity in literature, with its headstrong, generally unsympathetic heroine who makes some horrible choices but never compromises her intellect.

2.  The Edible Woman – Margaret Atwood.  Any Atwood is worth reading.  Historians may be more familiar with Alias Grace or The Blind Assassin.  Again for the ladies in the crowd, I will merely quote the blurb on the back:  “Ever since her engagement, the strangest thing has been happening to Marian McAlpin:  she can’t eat. … Marian ought to feel consumed with passion, but she really just feels … consumed.”

3.  Cycles-The Science of Prediction – Edward Dewey.  Economists typically study this book.  Humanities folks may be a bit overwhelmed by the formulas and graphs.  You can skip those pieces.  The key point is that human behavior/events occur in predictable cycles.  Yes, history repeats itself.  You may disagree with Dewey, but his arguments and evidence are fascinating.

4.  A Summer of Hummingbirds – Christopher Benfey.  That’s right.  Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, and Harriet Beecher Stowe all moved in the same circles.  Benfey’s book is part biography, part analysis of the creative process, and part social history.  He explores the impact of post-Civil War life on American art and artists.  Learn how artists incorporated their lives into their works.

5.  Speak, Memory – Vladimir Nabokov.   A classic of Russian pseudo-biography, Nabokov actively explores how we remember and recreate memories in this memoir of his childhood and early adult years.  Nabokov explains how he uses his fiction to memorialize people but is concerned that his personal memories slip away after he has fictionalized someone.  Make sure you get the Everyman’s Library edition with the extra Chapter 16.  Nabokov writes a review of Speak, Memory in the voice of a literary critic.

 

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The Brave New World of Mash-Up

On the last day of NCPH, I attended one of the last sessions:  Graphs, Maps, & Trees:  Imagining the Future of Public Interfaces to Cultural Heritage Collections.  The panelists/working group grappled with the same issues that we have been discussing all semester:  story-telling, 3D vs. 2D representations, copyright, citability, usability.  How do you tell a complex story visually?

Several of the panelists have wrestled with these issues since the heady days of the CD-ROM.  Questions have never been answered; more questions have been generated by Web 2.0.  Instead, some folks have reconciled themselves to never truly knowing the answers to the following questions:

1.  Why did a visitor come to my site?

2.  How is a visitor using my site?

3.  What are the visitor’s technical competencies?

4.  How do I know when I have finished a web/social media project?

5.  How many/what type of IT technical skills does a historian need?

6.  What are you allowed to do with online data?  (Copyright or distribution restrictions)

In the library world, best practices have evolved and are distributed via white papers or conferences.  Historians have not constructed similar mechanisms.  The panelists bemoaned the lack of research or case study sharing in the profession.  they had to look at non-history journals for guidance.  Museum personnel noted that institutional visitor studies are typically proprietary.

Since the questions above were first generated 20 years ago and have withstood technological change, the time has come to talk of many things.  Even the walrus would recognize that now is the time to actually research and then define best practices.