“History is one of the indispensable studies. No person can be educated or civilized who does not make a study of history, and a habit of reading history. This is because it stands alongside literature and the arts as one of the richest and best sources of understanding human experience and the human condition, and it equips us to understand ourselves, to organize our lives and societies, and to meet the future as best we may. As the saying derived from Thucydides has it, history is philosophy teaching by examples.” A. C. Grayling
The statement seems quaint to the post-literate and post-factual generation of today. Education in the classical sense is labelled non-productive and hence unnecessary – we may find our way to disaster alone, won’t we? Why should it matter what happened before our all-important present existence?
History is important. In centuries past this statement would have seemed self-evident. Ancient cultures devoted much time and effort to teaching their children family history. It was thought that the past helps a child understand who he is. Modern society, however, has turned its back on the past. We live in a time of rapid change, a time of progress. We prefer to define ourselves in terms of where we are going, not where we come from. Our ancestors hold no importance for us. They lived in times so different from our own that they are incapable of shedding light on our experience. Man is so much smarter now than he was even ten years ago that anything from the past is outdated and irrelevant to us. Therefore, the past, even the relatively recent past, is, in the minds of most of us, enshrouded by mists and only very vaguely perceived. Our ignorance of the past is not the result of a lack of information, but of indifference. We do not believe that history matters. But history does matter. It has been said that he who controls the past controls the future. Our view of history shapes the way we view the present, and therefore it dictates what answers we offer for existing problems. David Crabtree –The Importance of History
Never has the statement that who controls the past controls the future been more blindingly obvious that in our time of the Internet, Wikipedia and omnipresent surveillance. One of the most important objectives of the total news and history control executed by China is the suppression of the knowledge of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests and the subsequent massacre. The Chinese government is mortally afraid of the emancipation of the Chinese people. Its propaganda projects an image of political unity which is far from true – the problem is that most western people have little idea of it.
I happened to have a Chinese girlfriend in the 1980s – she was the owner of two restaurants – one in my birth town and a bigger one in the next major city. I accompanied her on many business trips and received a thorough education in inner-Chinese matters.
She showed me how there is not one communist party – there is one in every province, every town, every village – fiercely competitive – as there are not one Chinese people – obvious enough if we recall that before the implementation of the Mandarin language and script as lingua franca every province had its own lingo and people in private conversations still prefer their local dialects – just for safety. She described how she could tell only from the way the omnipresent dragons in the restaurants faced she could tell whether the owner was a party member or not, and what wing he favoured, or how the inclusion or exclusion of a dish on the menu could point out political expressions.
Suppression of history is a standard method of political control and the incidents are omnipresent. Hence, those that write and teach us history are on a truly noble quest and deserve our support. The better their discourse, the more we profit.
Hence, I decided to compose this short introduction to the main considerations and instruments the aspiring writer of history in the English language (or, rather, any writer) should be familiar with – ideally, have on his mind and desk at all times.
First: Know what you want. Are you planning a monograph, an excerpt about a partial aspect of a historic theme, an essay which points out your view of a question, a Wiki-Type entry that should, as short as possible and as short as necessary give an overview of a specific theme, or a full-fledged book on a period, personality or phenomenon? There is no precise formula on what to write and what not; this is your artistic challenge – the “Tour d’Horizon” you must define for yourself.
Why not simply use Wikipedia a basis, many would ask? This is indeed useful, but there are indeed a few drawbacks for the inexperienced. One is that without a personal basis of general knowledge, the prospective author cannot truly judge whether what the Wiki article says is holy writ or not. There are many issues which are hotly discussed – but Wiki always feels it must present a “middle” point of view, which, however, may be tainted because the Wiki editors themselves, who are as fallible as the next pope, cannot get everything “right” – naturally – because the concept of “truth” or “rightness” in our field is a very questionable matter.
The second factor in favour of the old-fashioned “encyclopedia” type of books, of which I will recommend some below, is that we find ourselves leafing through them, scrolling and browsing, which we seldom do on Wiki. While I browse through Wiki an hour or more every day using the “Random Article” button, I am aware that not everybody has the time or inclination to do so. Naturally, the useful habit again depends somewhat on the extent of your basic knowledge of worldly, historical, geographical and intellectual affairs – for the greater they are, the more sense you can make of the possibly spurious information you are confronted with by simply browsing through.
Since the writing of history demands different qualities than the description of fictitious events, we need to build on a foundation of our own life experience and the underlying facts of the subject – or at least reasonable likelihoods.
In your romance, action or detective story you may invent persons or localities, give them the characteristics you feel necessary for the plot, kill them when they served their function or let them suffer every fate you see fit. Not so in our field.
In addition, history is subject to both official and unofficial peer review – for you will find out in a hurry that if your presentation, deductions and conclusions are debatable, you will realize, and be told, that you have may engaged, willingly or not, in superfluity or propaganda – which is an entirely different field.
So is speculation. On Facebook, for example, there are “History” groups who specialize in this exercise – military history mainly, in which there occurs a lot of discussions what would have happened if general X had ordered army Y to move to Z and so forth. Quite interesting at times – but somewhat off the mark unless it serves the inquiry why the general made the decision the specified way and not any other. The “What if?” scenario can be fascinating, but we must recall it is not history.
But now to the sine-qua-non list:
This list enumerates the standard reference books every history writer needs in print form – many similar compilations are to be found for free on the internet and may function as replacements. However, most of the works mentioned are to be found easily at very little cost (I acquired mine usually under $5) at used book shops and their acquisition is strongly suggested. Here’s a link to a comparison of the best online shops for used books.
In order of importance:
I. ROGET’s INTERNATIONAL THESAURUS 7th Edition or newer, Collins Reference (HarperCollins Publishers) ISBN 978-0-06-171523-5 (thumb-indexed)
II. OXFORD DICTIONARY OF QUOTATIONS 7th Edition or newer, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-9237717-3,
History comes alive in winged words …
III. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE – COMPLETE WORKS – The Royal Shakespeare Company, The Modern Library, New York (Random House modernlibrary.com), ISBN 978-0-679-64295-4,
The cradle of Modern English …
IV. DICTIONARY OF FOREIGN WORDS AND PHRASES 2nd Edition or newer, Oxford University Press, Andrew Delahunty (Ed.), ISBN 978-0-19-954368-7,
Nix speaking Frencho, nay?
V. LATIN CONCISE DICTIONARY – HarperResource, ISBN 0-06-053690-X,
… with Supplements on Roman History and Culture …
VI. OXFORD DICTIONARY OF ALLUSIONS, Second Edition or newer, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-860919-3,
Jehoshabeath – who?
VII. THE READER’S COMPANION TO WORLD LITERATURE, Second Edition or newer, Signet Classics, ISBN 978-0-451-52841-4,
Basic info about the masterpieces of writing in one small collection …
VIII. THE AMERICAN HERITAGE ABBREVIATIONS DICTIONARY, Third Edition or newer, Houghton Mifflin Company, ISBN 0-618-62123-7,
Especially useful for scientific texts with abbreviations galore …
ADDENDUM: A LIST OF THE FUNDAMENTAL WORKS OF HISTORY EVERY WRITER SHOULD BE AWARE OF – with a slight Anglo-American bias:
(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)