Last week, we had dinner with some friends here on the island, and got into a conversation about history books. Paul was talking about his current book project, but also thinking out loud about other books he’d like to write in the future. One of our hosts, who reads widely, asked him if he could write a novel.
“Well, I could,” Paul replied, “but it wouldn’t count towards tenure.”
Our host then proceeded to give a very convincing discourse on why good historical fiction deserved as important a place in historical writing as more scholarly treatments of historical subjects. His main point: you can follow the story much better, and you learn more — and more deeply — than you do when reading nonfiction accounts. There are good characters, and you identify with them, and come to see a moment in time as they did. This, he said, is what ends up being really captivating about history.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about the ways in which we connect with the past, and the ways historians can most effectively communicate stories about the past to a wider audience in compelling ways that remain true to the rigors of scholarship while also being gripping and meaningful. Our host’s question has stuck with me, and his points about the virtues of fiction in telling history have been running through my head ever since. I was reminded of them again this morning, when an email for this talk about the Irish Ordnance Survey landed in my inbox, and I was seized immediately by a desire to reread Brian Friel’s excellent play, Translations, one of my favorite works of art of all time, which has the Survey at its center. I also was tempted to send an email to the entire CHE list saying, please, go read this play before you go to the talk! (Incidentally, I’m not the only scholar who’s taken a shine to Friel: Jim Scott uses a quote from Translations as an epigram at the beginning of Seeing Like a State. But I fell in love with the play long before reading that particular book.)
The point being that, even though I had never read any work of history on the Irish Ordnance Survey, I knew plenty about it when this talk announcement floated across my desk, and I was immediately fired up about going to the talk. (Too bad I can’t!) Friel had made it compelling to me, had planted the seed of interest: I was primed to want to learn more, since I had a sense of how important this mapping effort was to the lives of people at that time, as well as to the larger British colonial project. This is what our host was getting at when he compared reading a book about the civil war to reading a historical novel about it. The fictional account, based in historical fact, grounded the importance of the conflict in the lives of people, characters; that’s what allowed him to really connect with and understand that moment in time.
As a result, I’ve had a thought process running in the background, so to speak, about the ways in which we connect to history, the means by which the past comes alive to us, makes us want to learn, to know more. I’ve asked myself, what are the works of scholarship or art, the landscapes and experiences, that have brought history to life for me in the most affecting and lasting ways? This post is one attempt to sort through some of these ideas; my plan now is to write a series of entries on this subject, as this question has sparked a host of recollections of the moments that history has come alive for me. I’d love to hear about recollections you, my readers, have about books you’ve read, places you’ve visited, films you’ve seen, or other experiences that have made the past speak to you. For now, though, I’ll leave it at this: stories matter, and places matter, and grounding stories in the places we inhabit, or in activities that are important to our everyday lives, is one of the ways that the past can endure meaningfully in the present.