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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 rash spirits into its fatal depths."

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 flux of information and sensory input, so perhaps there is some biological basis to this most human of all motivations - the drive to know and understand. Of course, just as much may be said of any human intellectual endeavor, but the student of history will find, in addition, many unique rewards.

History is often interesting in the same way that anecdotes and contemporary gossip are irresistibly interesting. As humans, we cannot help but react to stories about other humans. A study of history will provide the student with countless intriguing facts, incredible series of events, unbelievable men and women, and in this way amuse and entertain. There is something wondrous in the abstract but real bond we still feel with our various countless ancestors.

There is also an unsettling pleasure in the sense of history, in the contemplation of historical time, the giddy vertigo that results when the mind oversteps itself and attempts to conceive of things that are (perhaps) beyond its scope.

How do I plan to learn more about history? For starters, I've barely scratched the surface of Durant's epic work. Perhaps I will be able, eventually, to supplement it by browsing more specific works on, say, economic history or political history, or histories of particular cultures and peoples. I should always remember in the back of my mind to focus on understanding general patterns, honing my sense and intuition of history.

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