Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Mystique of the Book

If ever anyone was destined to write books, I was that person. Or maybe I should say, "It should happen to me."
For years I had the sense not to mention this ambition to my decidedly non-literary family. But, as an avid reader, I could not hide from my unsettled parents that I was, at the least, bookish. I left a trail of books wherever I went, usually histories, biographies, dramas, poetry. (Fiction much less often--history was what I wanted to write, not novels.)
Not everything goes as we have planned it; and it was decades before I was able to publish my first book--"In The Lion's Mouth," a biographical sketch of Holocaust heroine Gisi Fleischmann. I knew by then just what was involved in publishing a "niche" book--that is, a non-blockbuster. The frustration and pain of multiple rejections and what seemed like universal misunderstanding were so sharp that I thought I would never do such a thing again--although I have done it several times since, and yet another memoir is likely to be on my agenda.)
But in the immediate aftermath of "In The Lion's Mouth" I was stunned by the reactions of casual acquaintances.
"I've always thought I'd like to write," they told me. "I've always wanted to do a book."
Close questioning generally revealed that they had never even READ a book--or at least not in years. But they wanted to bequeath one of their own to an eager--well, maybe not so eager--world.
What is the mystique of the book? Maybe it goes back to the Middle Ages, when you could save yourself from hanging if you wore a cleric's habit and could prove you could read and write. In that case, you could be forgiven for any crime. Or maybe it has to do with the powerful things that once were associated with books--everything from spells to laws, but certainly nothing trivial, could be found in them.
You would think it might be dying now. This is an age in which fewer and fewer people read; and if they DO read, a diminishing number of them are reading in traditional formats. Yet the ardor for doing a book--almost certainly a book that will not be read even by one's own nearest and dearest--seems unabated.
Go figure.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Byzantium: Does History Repeat Itself?

"The thing that has been is that which shall be." So said the great Greek historian Thucydides.
If Thucydides was right (or at least if I understand him correctly), this means history repeats itself; or at least historical patterns repeat themselves.
Given human nature, I find this believable. So why, then, do we never seem to learn from it? If we did, wouldn't that prevent a world of pain?
The answer to the second, rhetorical question clearly is "Yes." The answers to why we never seem to learn from it are multiple, I think.
First, we clearly are not as smart as we think we are. Otherwise the planet most likely would be in a better state. Second, we may be confused by the costume changes. I am only half frivolous about this. In our historical memory Romans look a lot different from Huns, who look a lot different from Edwardians. Things like this can be just enough to make us believe that the people in the costumes are doing different things, when in reality they are doing the same things underneath it all.
Then there are small but deadly ideas that get in the way--things like skin color or theology.
Especially theology.
It could be theology, more than anything else, that has prevented the average person from being taught anything about the Byzantine Empire. And it's too bad. This story is an important one. It is the tale of how, for century after century, the West was threatened by the rise of militant Islam. But it had a bulwark to the east--a Christian empire, originally a mighty one. Call it the Eastern Roman Empire, Romai, whatever. These days people who have heard of it at all generally call it the Byzantine Empire, or Byzantium. Lars Brownworth's book, "Lost To The West" provides a fascinating survey of its thousand-plus-year history, its culture, its 88 emperors, its military triumphs and defeats.
The threat of Islam arose, for both Byzantium and the West, as early as the late 7th century--during or soon after the life of Mohammed, the new faith's prophet. Both recognized the onslaught from the East as a threat to their way of life. Religion, or rather theology, kept them from working together as effectively as they might have. Indeed, at one point Crusaders from the Latin West overran Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, and weakened the Orthodox Christian eastern empire beyond possible recovery.
On Tuesday, May 29, 1453 Constantinople, the great, the storied, fell before the onslaught of Ottoman Turks. The Byzantine Empire was dead. It fell almost unaided in its hour of agony. Western Europe was left to cope with generations of Turkish incursions that swept as far west as the gates of Vienna.
Looking at Europe today, it seems--to me, at least--that the incursions of Islam have never really stopped.
How different might things have been if those long-ago Christians of the West and of the East had decided to throw away theological differences and unite against the common threat? Would history now be repeating itself, or at least seeming to do so?
We'll never know.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Thinking About History I

Thinking about history has been my major intellectual preoccupation all my life. In a way, it must have started before I started school, because in the course of many years of formal education my interest had to survive some fairly bad history "teachers." I'm sure you know the type: The ones who lived for the one class period a week they could spend on their true love, Driver Education. The coaches who thought class time was a good time to bring the football team (in my high school days the world's losingest) up to speed on their plays. Every teacher who ever majored in "social studies" because it looked like an easy path to a degree.
Later on I had at least one brilliant history teacher. For this I am grateful; but if my historical interest had not somehow been hardwired into me from birth I don't think it would have survived to encounter that brilliant one.
So--what IS history? History is--maybe--a "social study"; but if it is, it is a whole lot more than that. It is the doyenne of social studies.
It is our way of thinking about what goes on in time. But what if time itself is an illusion? (Sometimes that seems both likely and comforting.) In that case, I think, we still have to deal with history, because unless we can think like quantum physicists the historical idea is about as much as we can encompass intellectually.
How can we know if history is "true"? A good question. We can't. As students of history, it is our intellectual and moral obligation to keep the record--and to keep the record straight. Or at least as straight as possible. We will never be able to know that our telling of the story (the word "history" derives from the Greek word for "story", and rightly so) is true in every detail. It seems unlikely that it ever could be.
On the other hand, it is all too possible to distort the available historical record and shape it into a construct of lies. It's been done time and again; the most famous example of "twistory" is that perpetrated by Hitler and his minion Josef Goebbels, but on a lesser scale it goes on all the time.
The inevitable result is some REALLY bad history, immense suffering brought about through evil invention.
The British historian Garrett Mattingly, writing at a time when German bombs were raining down on his country, suggests a much higher use for his intellectual specialty. He was writing about the Spanish Armada, an earlier attempt by another country to destroy Britain; and in his book he praised the human virtues of the Spanish admiral, the Duke of Medina Sidonia. He said he did so because one of the uses of history is to do justice.
And to me that sounds like the very best use of history.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Hurrah For Human Hands!

When I buy books, I often buy them second hand. That suits my somewhat exotic (I guess) pattern of reading--history, biography, mythology, poetry...In a lot of cases it's buy second hand, or don't buy at all. New books in certain areas do not exist.
I am delighted when my "new" used books have been signed by their previous owners. Most likely I'll never meet them, but it expands my universe to know they are--or at least were--there. Often I sign my own books, new or old, as a way of expanding somebody else's view of things down the line.
So imagine my surprise at discovering that a previous owner's signature is regarded as a flaw in the quality of a book! For that matter, imagine my shock on learning that handwriting--with a pen or pencil--is considered passe, and is on its way out. Only keyboarding, formerly known as typing, is considered essential. This sort of encapsulates the situation I started with. Evidently if you want to put your name in a book, type a label.
Right-wing commentators have taken up the cause of handwriting in general, and this worries me. How does it happen that I agree with THEM on anything?
Nevertheless, this seems one case in which the Right is right.
Not only literature, but all the arts, were constructed with human hands. Not hands hammering away on keyboards, unless the keyboards are of musical instruments and those working at them are assembling a prelude or a fugue or playing a riff. But hands equipped with pens, pencils, brushes, chisels--tools that take the mind and soul where computer keyboards by themselves cannot go. (Though a blog like this proves that, in the right circumstances, computers can be liberating. )
But in the nature of things, computer keyboards come later. The tools you need in the beginning are the basic ones, the ones that still will work if the power goes out. Hand tools that have served our species for many centuries.
In the name of your own creativity, take up your pen and WRITE. Or draw, if that impulse moves you more.
And while you are at it, buy a used book signed by its previous owner.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Meet President Buchanan

Only one United State President hailed from Pennsylvania. Since President James Buchanan (1791-1868) sometimes is classed as the worst of all incumbents of the office, historically-minded Pennsylvanians often prefer not to pay much attention to him.
Still, many states have not had even ONE President--so let us get to know the one we have. I will be posting more about him later, and then readers can make up their own minds as to where he stands historically.
A lawyer and a graduate of Dickinson College, Buchanan should have been among the best prepared Presidents in our history. In the course of his career he was a member of the Pennsylvania State Legislature, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the U.S. Senate. He also served as U.S. minister (diplomatic representative) to Russia and to Great Britain, and U.S. Secretary of State.
That's quite a resume. But it wasn't enough to enable him to cope with the tragic Civil War which was looming over the nation when he was in the White House. He lived through the whole thing, and most of us can only wonder what he thought about it as it unwound. Perhaps he left letters that only professional historians know about. If I find that to be true, I'll be sure to post about it.
Buchanan's Pennsylvania life was lived in a small area of the south central part of the state. If you are interested, you can visit several Buchanan sites within a reasonably small area.
The first of these is the site of his birthplace, the 18-plus acre Buchanan Birthplace State Park at Cove Gap. This has a small stone pyramid on the site of the future President's natal log cabin, and opportunities for camping and fishing. Nearby Cove Gap State Park is much larger, with cabins, camp grounds, and more extensive recreational opportunities.
(But I don't want to write much about the state parks just now. As I post this their future seems to be on the chopping block for financial reasons. As I learn more about the situation I'll post the information, together with what, if anything, we can do to help.)
To return to the subject of this post, President Buchanan: I am told that the actual log cabin, so conspicuously missing from the site of his birthplace, is on the grounds of Mercersburg Academy, the distinguished preparatory school in nearby Mercersburg.
At the heart of Buchanan's life, though, was his stately home, Wheatland, located at 230 North President Avenue, Lancaster, PA 17603. The handsome Federal-style house is kept up and administered by Lancaster County's Historical Society, online at LancasterHistory.org, and visitors are welcome.
Special events coming up in the next few months include, on Saturday, July 17, from 1 to 3 p.m., A Day In the Life Of Harriet Lane: First Lady and Philanthropist, celebrating Buchanan's gifted niece, who served as his White House hostess; and, on Saturday, August 28 and Saturday, September 11, from1 to 3 p.m. both days, Life Below Stairs: The Servant's Tour, a look at the lives of Wheatland's servants.
For more information on these or other events, call Wheatland at (717) 392-8721; or call Lancaster County's Historical Society at (717) 392-4633.

Friday, July 2, 2010

So--Who WAS Julius Caesar, Anyway?

A friend of mine told me he had recently had a battle with another friend, a man who happens to be an admirer of that well-known Roman, Julius Caesar.
L. definitely is not. Being reminded of this fact, I said he could have a battle with me, too, if he chose. Caesar was one of my earliest intellectual interests, and remains so.
Why? Good question. I first met the man through the Shakespeare play named for him. There, he is depicted as a kind of political boss who has lost his grip. And I was sure, from the beginning, that this was part of the truth. But only part. How many political has-beens--if that is all they are--have their names ring down through the ages?
I think it is the complexity of Caesar's character, the many facets of it that have come down to us, that makes him so challenging to us even today.
He was not a nice person, to begin with. He did not live in a nice era, which helps to explain it. He was a relative of the popular Roman leader Marius-whose enemy, Sulla, plotted against the young Caesar's life almost from the time he was born. Having to keep your back to the wall at all times is not a prescription for an open, sunny personality.
Caesar also had as a contemporary the Roman general who crucified five thousand of Spartacus's gladiators along the Appian Way, following the defeat of the rebels. They played for keeps in the Rome of that day. For quite a while Caesar was good at playing for keeps, too, although the fate of the Ides of March caught up with him in the end.
It is important to note that Shakespeare never called Caesar "the noblest Roman of them all." As a writer, Shakespeare knew a flawed character when he saw one. He reserved the accolade of nobility for the pompous and nerdy Marcus Brutus--who, according to long-standing rumor, may also have been Caesar's son.
Maybe the really long-term influence exerted by Caesar has to do with ideas of his which were unorthodox in his time--some of which continue to shape our world. He was inquisitive, and he followed up on these ideas.
For example: Although the Caesar family was of ancient nobility, it was also down on its luck when young Julius came on the scene. Its home was in a poor section of Rome, right across from the city's only synagogue. Caesar inquired about this group of Jews, and became its protector. Somebody I have read recently--it may have been Tom Holland in "Rubicon"-- observes that the real sound of Rome following Caesar's assassination was not that of the howling mobs depicted by Shakespeare. It was of Jewish voices raised in lament for their friend.
Caesar's interest in the Jews shows a kind of broad and humane intelligence that I--and, I am sure, many other moderns--find appealing.
He also is credited with, in a sense, "inventing" Europe. Roman magistrates, leaving office, had come to be in the habit of leading military expeditions to eastern climes, to plunder and pillage them, enrich themselves, and (maybe) win a triumph when they returned to the capital.
Caesar instead turned to Gaul, toward the northwest, which through his efforts became an integral part of the Roman Empire--some would say the most important part during the early imperial days.
He and his men also were the first Romans to set foot in Britain, whose inhabitants--fed in part by distant historical memories, no doubt --one day would develop imperial aspirations of their own.
Who was your Julius Caesar? The sordid, power-grasping politician who lost his grip? The intellectually curious and often constructive visionary who helped shape our world of today?
Mine is both of these; and more--and less--besides.