Thursday, July 05, 2012

One Pay-Off of Studying History: The Platypus Reads Part CLXVI

The discipline of History, in the United States, fought for some time and with some vigor to be considered one of the sciences.  In the end, sociology got the coveted slot with its studies and quantifiable data and history was shoved firmly in the Humanities (stuff that isn't real and that we don't know why people get paid to study it since it's really just an elitist private hobby).  I'm told that in Germany, however, History has been firmly considered a "craft" in the "Humanities" since time immemorial.  Following the idea of history being a "craft" led me to think of the arts.  In music, the point is not to learn all the notes and thunk out endless renditions of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," but to be able to sit down and enjoy hearing Bach rolling out from your fingers.  Or take learning a language.  Is the purpose of learning Greek really to be able to rattle off declensions and puzzle through some Aesop, or to be able to be able to hear the strange music of Homer in his own tongue (or as close as we can get to it)?  What, then, is the "payoff" of learning the "craft" of History?

Ignoring the usual social utility that high school teachers preach and guild historians deplore, let's follow up the analogy of playing Bach or reading Homer.  There are works of history that thrill with the power of Bach and move with music of the Iliad.  These are works by historians for historians; works of art and not mere educational tools.  There's a pleasure that comes when after all the hours spent mastering the intricacies of historical method and theory you can sit down with a book written by a true practitioner of the art and enjoy.  Yes, their are volumes of history out there that are like fine wine to the epicure or a German Steinway to a Piano snob. 

Are you still with me?  Let me head down into the stacks then and I'll reveal what vintages I recommend.  Ah, here!  Let me recommend The Death of Woman Wang, by Jonathan D. Spence.  As a delicate and moving micro-history, it stands at the highpoint of the current American Art.  Would you like something of less recent vintage?  Try Mont Saint-Michel et Chartres by the old master, Henry Adams.  Maybe it's something farther afield that you desire?  A taste of the continent?  Here we have Memories of Odysseus by Francois Hartog.  A wonderful and winding discourse worthy of its title with just the right tang of structuralism/post-structuralism to loosen that top collar button a bit.  There you have it.  But, be warned my friend, these are fine vintages, not some common vin de table.  To truly appreciate them requires a refined and subtle taste.

History may be many things, but it is not less than an art.  Like an art, there is an aesthetic payoff for years of hard study and practice.  Of course, the real mastery is not merely to read and enjoy, but to enjoy and write.  To your health!

N.B.- I've discussed, briefly, my breakdown of secondary sources and the order in which I think they should be employed here.

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