A Blog about Books, Thoughts, and General Tomfoolery

History is Like a Baby: Perspective, and How We See Who We Were

So if anyone is a fan of the vlogbrothers’ Crash Course, you may have seen John Green’s world history video on the Renaissance, and whether or not it as actually a thing. (Here’s a link if you want to watch it—it’s wonderful! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vufba_ZcoR0).

John’s basic argument was that in it’s own time, the Renaissance was not actually a thing. Today, we see the Renaissance as a time of intellectual expansion—art, literature, and philosophical thought exploded back onto the scene after “The Dark Ages”, a time known to history majors as Medieval History, and to everyone else as the huge block of black where nothing happened except bubonic plague.

But how we see history today is not necessarily how it was seen when it was lived. John argued that since most of Europe had no contact at all with the Renaissance as it occurred, it doesn’t really count as a historical event in the way we consider 9/11 or WWII historical events—that is, it wasn’t acknowledged as history while it was happening. Most people just kept tilling the fields and raising the pigs and keeping the world spinning while the rich people swam in the opulence.

This is definitely an interesting idea. To most people, history is something indelible, a collection of dates and names carved in stone. But more often than not, history is merely the study of perspective. How we choose to view our own past is just as important as what happened and when.

So using John’s take on the Renaissance, and a few historical arguments of my own, I’m going to show how history is like a baby.

Okay, so when I say history is like a baby, I actually mean that history is like a person who was once a baby (but that doesn’t make for a clever blog title, so…)

We were all babies once; we started small, and grew into the people that we are today. But you don’t remember being a baby, do you? There are pictures (that one of you naked in the tub) and family anecdotes, but in your own head there aren’t many memories still stored. History is much the same. Everyone knows the general progression, but there isn’t a really clear picture of what actually happened. We’re told that something happened then, but it’s too far off for us to remember on our own.

This is the category where I place the Renaissance. There is some remaining physical evidence from the Renaissance (mostly in the form of visual art) but there isn’t a lot more to tell us what actually happened during this time period.There weren’t many complete political records (or unified countries, for that matter), no wars large enough to garner historical merit, no major leaps and bounds other than this blurry movement in high art and literature that took place in very localized regions (anyone familiar with the Northern Renaissance?)

And yet, everyone knows about the Renaissance. It’s given importance in nearly every K-12 history class that covers European history, including AP Euro. We can all name the major artists of the time period, and at least a few of their most famous works. So what the H is going on here?

This is where the perspective part of history comes in. John remarked that while the Renaissance might not have been important while it was actually happening, it’s important to us because we care about the ideals that the Renaissance brought to light (like pretty ceilings) and it’s a part of history that actually sounds like progress, rather than a big black void where everything is confusing.

This is not only true, but eternally important. It tells us more about ourselves as people than the history itself does, because it shows what our society today values. For example, U.S. History as taught in American schools is extremely different from the U.S. History that’s taught in China, or Great Britain. Here in America (at least in K-12), we talk about the virtues of the American Revolution, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the U.S.’s part in defeating the fascist nations in WWII. It’s a form of American History that gives due course to all the glory, and little mention to the faults of our nation and it’s the negative impacts of its actions.

But for an entire semester I listened to my college-level U.S. History professor rant about how all the Founding Fathers were hypocrites, and America was founded not because of the will of the people to have freedom (though that was a part of it), but more because of the economic opportunities it offered the upper classes. See? Totally different story. And it’s all because of perspective.

I think what our fascination with the cultural phenomenon that was the Renaissance says that we want history to make sense, and for it to be easy to understand. It’s very easy to listen to a teacher talk about the advances in thought and art that happened during the Renaissance, and categorize it in our minds as a turning point in human existence.

I also think it reveals a bit of an obsession with modernization. We don’t like to think about the times when we contemplated how many angels would fit on the head of a pin, or when we thought the earth was the center of the universe. You only ever hear about those times when they’re in contrast with the modern era—when they’re used to point out how silly we once were, and to imply how much better we are now. The Renaissance is one of those times. It supposedly dragged Europe out of the darkness and into the light of modernity, where knowledge was appreciated again! Only not really.

After all, you have to walk before you can run. Copernicus didn’t just wake up one morning and say, you know what? The sun is the center of the universe. There were centuries of other astronomers whose work led up to the point where he published his paper, and their contributions are no less important, even if their names are lost to us. So while we may like to look at history and see a chain of constant improvement and enlightenment to the truth, it just doesn’t work that way. There will always be those muddy periods that we don’t remember fully, or that we aren’t proud of, but are still important to who we are as people.

And though this is toeing a dangerous line, I think that our focus on the Renaissance is a pretty good example of How The West Thinks It’s Better Than Everybody Else. The fact that we use Renaissance as a milestone of intellectual history ignores the thousands of years of study and scholarship done by non-Western civilizations. Long before the time of the Renaissance, the Chinese had invented all four of the Four Great Inventions (paper, printing, the compass, and gunpowder) along with many other important things, such as the bell, rectangular coffins, bristle toothbrushes, the seismograph (used to measure the intensity of earthquakes), porcelain, the first paper currency, the wheelbarrow, the collapsible umbrella, fireworks, and the concept of the number zero. Just to name a few. That kind of blows Leonardo da Vinci out of the water. Admittedly, those discoveries happened over longer periods of time than what happened during the Renaissance, but the fact that we’re taught the Renaissance from the very start of our education and not the development of knowledge as a worldwide pursuit, shows that we believe that the bulk of knowledge and art was discovered and created in the West.

To wrap things up, there is one way in which history is actually like a baby: it’s totally dependent on other people for survival. Most people believe that history is solid, a long list of dates and names carved in unmoving stone. But the truth is, history would be nothing without people to pass it on. We are the ones who decide if the Renaissance is truly a “thing”, or if the American founding fathers are hypocrites, or if it was Richard III or Henry VII who killed Edward V and Richard, Duke of York during the War of the Roses. History is nothing but a story, and we are the ones who decide what is summary, what is scene, and what goes unmentioned.

So go ahead—be a historian, and decide what history you want to pass on. After all, it’s your story too, no matter how small you may seem in the scheme of things.

Day 1, Book 1: Mansfield Park & Jane Austen

Just a quick synopsis for anyone who hasn’t read the book (though no spoilers!) or for people who have read the book and are a little fuzzy:Mansfield Parkis about a girl named Fanny Price, who goes to live with her more affluent Uncle and Aunt Bertram, their children, and her other aunt Mrs Norris. She’s not a high class girl, which puts her out of the running for being a close friend of her cousins Mary and Julia Bertram; but she takes comfort and becomes good friends with her cousin Edmund. She grows up at Mansfield Park, but is always in the background, behind the rest of her family, remaining pretty much seen but not heard.

Thing start to change when Sir Thomas Bertram (the uncle) goes away to Antigua to handle his business affairs. He takes Tom, the eldest Bertram and heir to Mansfield Park, with him. Tom is a bit of a rapscallion, spending tons of his father’s money on who knows what, and basically not being a very good heir of the estate, so his father is hoping the trip will get that out of him.

While he’s gone Maria gets engaged to a man called Mr. Rushworth, who isnt’ particularly handsome or clever, but has tons of money. Also, a brother and sister, Mary and Henry Crawford, arrive as guests in the house of Dr. and Mrs. Grant, who are Mansfield Park’s parsonage.

Both Maria and Julia fall for Henry Crawford, which, of course, is totally improper for Maria, but both flirt with him and fight for his attention and affection. Also, Edmund takes a liking to Miss Crawford, which strains our poor Fanny, who falls in love with her cousin as the book progresses. The rest of the novel is the twists, turns, and follies of the game of love.

I thought Mansfield Park would be a good way to start the project. It didn’t seem that difficult. I knew that the language was kind of loaded and difficult for the modern eye to see through immediately, but as I always tell people who complain that Shakespeare is impossible, if you take your time and reason it out, it can be pretty self-explanatory. I thought it be a little challenging, but still something that I was familiar with to an extent. 

So, when I started the book, I didn’t think it was going to be that hard.

Wow, was I taken by surprise.

Jane Austen and I have always had a difficult relationship. Her six books are supposedly some of the greatest work of the English Language. But to be honest, I could never really see why. Historically, the books are pretty interesting, since there weren’t that many women writers around in the Regency period, but it’s not as if she was the first woman author in English History. Nor was she the only popular or critically acclaimed woman writer of the time–the Brontes and George Eliot were writing around the same time as she was, and if you count American authors in the running, so was Phyllis Wheatley, the famous African American poetess.

But plot-wise, I’ve never understood the appeal. They sound to me like the Regency equivalent of the modern day romance novel.  The plot structure and flow is basically the same. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl get to know each other. They are just on the cusp of being together when something horrible happens, or some secret comes to light that would have stopped them from being together in the first place, had it not been secret. Then something miraculous happens and everyone ends up in the right place, or punished for being a jerk.

I’m not familiar with all of Austen’s novels, so I can’t say whether or not this happens in all of them, but in Mansfield Park (and, she hedged carefully, Pride and Prejudice), definitely yes.

I’m not saying it was a bad book. It was very enjoyable at points. I liked Fanny and Edmund a lot (I have a tendency to love all boys named Edmund after the Chronicles of Narnia) and felt like they were strong, stable characters. I thought that Julia, one of Fanny’s cousins, was kind of an Edith (for any Downton Abbey fans out there). She could have been fleshed out a bit more. And the plot wasn’t bad either; it was just kind of predictable.

What I couldn’t stand was the rambling.

Usually I can pop through a book in 2-4 hours. This took me more than 10 hours. And I wasn’t exactly zipping right through if you know what I mean. That’s because, for some unknown reason, Jane Austen decided to include some of the most boring conversations I have ever read in print. For instance, she takes about a page or two to recount a discussion over what transportation to take to Sotherton Estate. I’m sure that was a perfectly respectable conversation to be having in its time, but as a modern reader, I was confused, and hoping with each paragraph that they would just get on with the story. I don’t even know what a chaise or a barouche are. (Does anyone here know, by the way?)

I could see the usefulness of each conversation. For example, in the conversation above, it eventually leads to Edmund giving up his spot on the trip for Fanny, and that leads to Fanny seeing some happenings between Henry Crawford and Mary Bertram that are important to the plot. But it was so dull to have to read through, and shehardly ever uses summary when it comes to conversation.

I probably shouldn’t be so harsh–I don’t know a lot of the historical context of the book, so while I find the conversations totally dry, and the plot predictable, they were probably pretty interesting to someone in the Regency era. And I can’t deny the empowerment of women writers at a time when there were so few. This book just wasn’t my cup of tea.

I have a feeling I’m still going to get slammed by the Austen lovers.

So, maybe not the most solid start for the project. Hopefully, tomorrow will be a bit easier, and I won’t be posting this five minutes before the midnight deadline again.

Tomorrow’s book is a history book. In attempt to better understand what the hell a barouche is, and maybe make some sort of peace offering to Miss Austen, I’ll be readingWhat Jane Austen Ate and What Charles Dickens Knew:From Fox Hunting to Whist–the Facts of Daily Life in 19th Century England.

I’m out!

Full Book List!

Here’s all the books I will be reading this summer, organized by genre:

Continue reading

Project Starts Tomorrow!

The Summer Reading Project actually starts tomorrow!

I had to recatalog my home library–I’m just now moving into a more permanent living space, and I had to reintegrate books that had been separated, plus figure out how to arrange them on the shelves. It was invigorating! It’s sad, but I could probably spend my whole life reorganizing the same books. It’s a good skill to have if you want to be a librarian (which I do). Anyway, now I have all my books finally sorted and on the shelves, I can actually tell you what book I’m going to be reading for the first day.

I had a hard time picking one out. I thought maybe I should go with some contemporary fiction, to ease into things (such as Room by Emma Donoghue). Then I thought I should do something funny, like The Sex Lives of Famous Gays by Nigel Cawthorne (yes, I do own this book). And for a brief, clearly insane moments I thought about starting off with Shelby Foote, so I could get that out of the way from the get-go and really prove to myself that I’m going to do this.

Finally, I decided that I should do something that was challenging, but still fun and relatively easy to accomplish so that I don’t burn myself out before I really get going. So tomorrow’s book and blog subject is Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. It should be interesting—I’m not a huge Austen fan, so this book will really have to impress me to get a good review. If nothing else, I can always find something to rant about when it comes to Jane Austen.

And now for some housekeeping, about some technical parts of the project, namely long-as-hell books. Since I do have a few biggies, and also a fair amount of those “Collected Works” deals, I’ll be splitting those readings up by the week, reading a section a day rather than the whole thing. For instance, when I read Shelby Foote (I’m scheduling that for mid to late May, so that I’m not putting it off right until the end), I’ll divide it into 200 page sections, so if I start on Monday, I should be finished with it by Thursday or Friday, unless I take my day off in the middle of the week. For Completed Works (such as my complete Sherlock Holmes), I’ll read a certain number of stories/poems/whatever a day and then pick a few select things to blog about in the actual post.

Hopefully this will turn into something fun as well as a good managing tool, since it means I can have theme weeks, such as mystery week, English history week, classic fiction week, etc. I’ll be posting a full list of all the books I’ll be reading this summer shortly after this is posted, and once that’s done I’ll be able to see more clearly what goes well with what. 

I’m so excited! Here we go, off into the wild blue yonder!

See you all tomorrow!

Once Upon a Time…

I know, cheesy title to start with, but I couldn’t think of anything else.

So. This is my blog. Hi.

My name is Mentha Lightfoot (not really—don’t I wish), and I’m a person sitting in a room typing on a computer.

The reason why I’m sitting in a room and typing on a computer rather than doing things like increasing world hunger awareness or fighting for shelter dogs or something of larger value to society is because I, in general, am a self-actualizing person. I’m more about the internal than the external. And this blog will be the center of a project I’ve set myself for the summer to improve myself.

I like to read, and consequently I own a lot of books. Recently I bought (and nearly botched during assembly) an Ikea bookshelf to hold the large portion of my collection that doesn’t fit on my other shelves. And I realized, as I recataloged and shelved them all, that I have not read OVER HALF my books. This is simply not acceptable.

So this summer, I’m going to read every single book that I have given someone else money in order to own (or stolen from my parents’ bookshelf). And I’m not just going to read them and post willy-nilly whenever I feel like it, because that will quickly lead down the road to watching BBC’s Sherlock until 4 PM in my pajamas every day.

I’m going to read at least one book every day, no matter what. I owe it to the authors, to the capitalist economic system, and to myself.

This is not exactly going to be easy—looking at my bookshelf right now, I see all three Lord of the Rings books, Anna Karenina, at least 10 William Shakespeare plays, and The Civil War (Part 1—Fort Sumter to Perrysville) by Shelby Foote, each of which I have to read in one day. Yeah, I’m probably a little masochistic deep down. But honestly, I’m really excited about it.

I’ve divided the books up into genres: History, Fiction, Classic Fiction, Young Adult Fiction, General Non-Fiction, Biography and Autobiography, Books about Writing, and Poetry. There are probably a lot of smaller categories that I missed or haven’t created yet—closer to when I’m starting to continuously update, I’ll post a full list of genres, and a list of all the titles I’ll be tackling in the next few months.

And while I am slightly sadomasochistic, I’m not trying to be Super Woman here. I’m going to give myself the full twenty-four hours of the day to completely and thoroughly read the book of choice and write a meaningful post about it. There won’t be any point to me writing this or you reading this if it’s not done right. After all, the quick brown fox may jump over the lazy dog, but why bother if it’s not done with acumen?

I’m also not going to punish myself if I fall behind a little. Shelby Foote’sThe Civil War(which I mentioned above as one of my more frightening prospects) is 840 pages of narrative history. If I can complete that in a day, and still be coherent, then I have a much higher level of stamina than I believe is possible in human beings. So if I need two days to finish a particularly challenging book, then I’m going to take it without a second thought.

The true challenge will be in keeping going. I’m a terrible procrastinator, so if I take an extra day and still get really frustrated, I may slip and start going a week or two without having read anything. That’s where I need you, reader, to kick me in the pants. Seriously, kick hard.

I don’t know how far this is going to go. I’m hoping it’ll go really well, and I’ll branch out into other topics, and everyone will love me. But I just don’t know.

This is enough extrapolation for now; let’s get going. Who knows what we’ll encounter on this awesome journey together?

Godspeed and DFTBA,

Mentha

OFFICIAL START DATE FOR THE PROJECT: MAY 1, 2012