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A sense of history.


Beginning some months ago, my interest in nonfiction has been increasing, as I continue to read and be fascinated by thought-provoking book upon thought-provoking book. Among these are three that deal in history, both natural and socio-political: Guns, Germs, and Steel, A Short History of Nearly Everything, and, most recently, The Story of Civilization.

To summarize Guns, Germs, and Steel: Jared Diamond explains the overall historical dominance of Eurasian civilizations by pointing out geographical and ecological factors that facilitated agriculture and the domestication of animals, accelerating the acquisition of civilization (and hence superior weaponry and political organization) as well as immunity to animal-borne diseases (which would turn out to provide significant, if not crucial, assistance in subduing those who had yet to acquire resistance).

A Short History of Nearly Everything, on the other hand, is something like a guided tour: from the origins of the universe, to the formation and development of our planet Earth, to the evolution of Homo sapiens, to the more recent history of the scientific undertaking, with all its eccentric geniuses and humorous episodes. (In fact, this last formed such a large part of the book that it may as well have been called The Secret Lives of Scientists.)

And, last but definitely not least, The Story of Civilization is a gigantic, sprawling, eleven-volume set of books representing Will (and Ariel, his wife) Durant's valiant attempt at an encompassing and synthetic, yet detailed and sympathetic, exploration of man's history. In his own words:

"I wish to tell as much as I can, in as little space as I can, of the contributions that genius and labor have made to the cultural heritage of mankind - to chronicle and contemplate, in their causes, character and effects, the advances of invention, the varieties of economic organization, the experiments in government, the aspirations of religion, the mutations of morals and manners, the masterpieces of literature, the development of science, the wisdom of philosophy, and the achievements of art. I do not need to be told how absurd this enterprise is, nor how immodest is its very conception … Nevertheless I have dreamed that despite the many errors inevitable in this undertaking, it may be of some use to those upon whom the passion for philosophy has laid the compulsion to try to see things whole, to pursue perspective, unity and time, as well as to seek them through science in space. … Like philosophy, such a venture [as the creation of these 11 volumes] has no rational excuse, and is at best but a brave stupidity; but let us hope that, like philosophy, it will always lure some ras...

It seems to me that Will Durant is one of those writers possessed of such skill and contagious zeal as to effortlessly enamor any reader with even the slightest degree of receptiveness.

These books have helped me to realize how rich and rewarding a study of history might be. I am quite tempted at this point to once again quote Will Durant and let a far, far more eloquent man extol the pleasures and virtues of the historical endeavor. But instead I shall push on.

Why study history? There is the peculiar intellectual pleasure of elegant explication, of patterns being found arising naturally, or being crafted with great deftness and skill. The human mind has evolved to revel in unraveling and making sense of a constant f...

History is often interesting in the same way that anecdotes and contemporary gossip are irresistibly interesting. As humans, we ca...


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Template. (As always, a work in progress.)


(A guide to help future posts be as useful and on track as possible. First draft: 24-Aug-2009. 1 edit as of 24-Aug-2009.)

1. How and when I encountered the idea or concept

- Brief remarks for context

- Introduction to the reference text

2. The explanation, in my own words

- What it's all about

- Why it's worth trying to learn and explain

3. Synthesis

- Support/ agreement with other ideas

- Possible criticism/ clashing with other ideas

4. Continuation

- Related ideas and other references (e.g., to look up)

- Plans for learning more about the idea or concept

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The first steps. Learning by explaining.


Lately, I've come to realize that appreciating great ideas as I encounter them is one thing. Retaining and making good use of them is quite another. The desire grew - and continues to grow - in me to start taking learning more seriously.

At the same time, inspired by the many samples of clear, lively exposition I've marveled at over the years, I wish to improve my (latent?) writing skills.

Here I hope to begin the ambitious, perhaps noble but undoubtedly naive attempt at my own explanation of all these things I don't want to just forget - because I find them elegant, shocking, illuminating, or, simply, beautiful.

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