An Overwhelming Amount of History

by James Wallace Harris, 11/21/22

I’m not going to try and review Susan Wise Bauer’s three-volume history of the world. It’s just too much. I’m just going to give you my impression of what they are like and let you decide if you want to read them. I got all three audiobooks on sale at Audible and at least one of the Kindle editions on sale, maybe two. So if you want to try one, wait for a sale. Although, I sort of wish I had gotten the hardback editions too. I find I actually read more if I listen to audiobook editions or read Kindle editions, but the hardbacks would let me just dip back into them from time to time.

Here are their titles. Their subtitles are more accurate than the main titles. Links are to the Kindle edition.

  1. The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome
  2. The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade
  3. The History of the Renaissance World: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople

First off, I knew very little of the history that Bauer presents. However, and this is a huge warning, it’s nearly all about wars, conquests, rulers, and reigns. If you like history with a story or interpretation, these books aren’t for you. It’s just the facts mam. And it’s relentless. It took me most of 2022 to get through seventy hours of audiobook listening because I could only handle it in spurts. All three volumes equal the length of some audiobook versions of the King James version of the Bible.

On the other hand, I was very impressed with Bauer’s writing. It’s concise and fascinating. She often refers to period sources, which I liked a lot. And she would reference later art and literature that looks back on history. I was impressed by how much poets and artists from the 18th and 19th centuries knew about history. We just aren’t the classical scholars people used to be.

Here is a sample from The History of the Renaissance World to give you an idea of Bauer’s prose and focus.

If you’ve ever been curious about all those Kings of England and France, then these books are for you. Another reason why I like Bauer’s history books is she covers more than the Western world. She jumps to the East and the New World too. Here are two timelines for a sample of how she jumps around. If you note the years, you’ll see that she almost goes year by year. These cover just a few chapters in the Renaissance book.

And each mention on the timelines mostly leads to a short game-of-thrones-like conflict. Human history is amazingly like HBO’s Game of Thrones. However, the TV show is much less violent and evil compared to history. And that’s the main takeaway I got from reading these three volumes of history. Most of humanity throughout history has suffered from the ambitions of a few. The people of history that have led us have nearly always led us into suffering. There are no “Great” leaders in history even if they have been bestowed that title.

I know there is a movement among conservatives to fight what’s called Critical Race Theory being taught in schools. Conservatives don’t want their children to feel bad about themselves. Well, they shouldn’t read any history then. Anyone who idolizes any leader from the past, or glorifies any era is deluding themselves. Anyone who gets easily depressed should not read these books or any history books that cover history honestly.

That’s another lesson from reading these books. We glamorize history. If you compare the movies made about the Crusades or the Middle Ages to what really happen, you realize we’re lying to ourselves. Knights and crusaders were not nice people and were definitely not chivalrous. Heroes are not what we think. Joseph Campbell was full of bullshit when he described the mythology by the hero. So was Tolkien. If you feel romantic about any story dealing with aristocracy then you are fooling yourself.

We have whitewashed history so thoroughly that many people long for the past. The whole heroic fantasy industry is just childish make-believe. Even dark violent fantasies like Game of Thrones are clean and nice in comparison to history. If Hollywood made films based on Bauer’s history books and filmed things as they happened I doubt few people could psychologically handle them.

I can’t say I recommend Bauer’s History of the World series. I’m glad I read them. I might even read them again. Many have recommended we study history so we won’t repeat it. After reading these books I’m now confident we can’t break out of the loop.

When I was a kid I wanted to know the truth. Obviously, we can’t handle the truth. I keep trying. Studying history is like pistol-whipping myself to handle a little more truth. I face reality in tiny bits and then run back to escapist hiding, but I always poke my head out once in a while for a little bit more of reality.

Now that I’ve read these books I’m going to go hide for a while.

JWH

“Why Are All Your Friends Women?”

by James Wallace Harris, 11/17/22

While my sister was visiting last week we socialized with five of my friends. At one point, Becky asked, “Why are all your friends women?” I answered defensively, “I have male friends too,” but actually not that many. Well, two, if you don’t count several guys I interact with on the internet.

I’m writing this essay because this morning I was reading Flipboard and saw another article about how modern men don’t have friends. That made me think about Becky’s question and wondered if I had more female friends than male friends because guys don’t make many friends with other guys. I thought of bull elephants and male orangutans that spend most of their time alone in the jungle. Is it just natural for males to lead lonely lives?

One reason I don’t see more guys I know is that I don’t like leaving home, and neither do my male friends. My longest-running friendship is with a guy named Connell. We met in March of 1967 when we were in the 10th grade at Coral Gables High School in Miami Florida. We struck up a conversation over science fiction and astronomy. I moved away from Miami in 1970 but have remained friends with Connell ever since. But we’ve both stopped traveling and haven’t seen each other in more than twenty years. However, we do talk on the phone a couple times a week.

I met my other close male friend, Mike, in 1980 at work. He lives in Memphis. Susan and I are friends with Mike and his wife Betsy ever since then. We used to socialize more with them, and even travel together, but both Mike and I have become homebodies, especially after Covid, but also because we’re getting old and our health is in decline. Only my wife Susan still likes to go out or travel. I’m quite impressed with her for that.

I had many more male friends, but they have died, moved away, or I just lost contact with them.

Somehow I’ve been lucky to make several female friends which I’ve known for over twenty years. I see and talk to them all fairly regularly. Counting Susan my wife, and Becky my sister, I think the number of my women friends is eleven. Becky got to meet five of them, not counting Susan. I guess that’s why she asked her question.

Several of my women friends I met through Susan. Susan was and is much more social than I am. She has run around with several social groups over the course of our marriage. For a decade Susan took a job out of town and only came home for the weekends, and sometimes not even that. This forced me into socializing again. I started going to the movies with some of her friends or having them over to watch TV, and they became my friends. Two of my women friends were ones I made at work before I retired. And two were ones I made on my own. Our shared friendships were mainly based on movies, TV shows, books, and liberal politics.

If Susan had never worked out of town, I don’t know if I would have made all those women friends. I guess loneliness is the mother of socializing. I do wonder now that I’m in my seventies and want to socialize even less if my women friends will still want to stay friends. When Covid hit we all stopped going to the movies and eating out, and that put a big dent in what socializing I had left in me. By then Susan was back home and we hunkered down keeping each other company for those social distancing years.

If I had never gotten married I would probably be an old guy like those in all the articles. I think some of my women friends were friends with me because they considered me safe because I was married and unthreatening. I think women also like me because I’m willing to listen, and I have a high tolerance for lady chatter. I know that comment will irk some, but I’ve known a lot of guys who told me they broke up with women because they talked too much.

I would like more male friends. Actually, I would like more friends of any kind who share my interests, but that tends to be old guys. Before I retired I thought I had several male friends at work that I would stay in touch with after retiring. But it didn’t work out that way. Some of those guys were just too busy with their families, or they lived too far away in the suburbs. And a couple of them I just stopped seeing when politics got too polarized. Guys love their hobbies, and unless you’re friends share your hobbies, we seldom make the effort to meet up. Many men are just not that social.

When I was young I joined clubs, like the astronomy club, science fiction club, or computer club, and I made casual friends. But I’m just not a hobby club kind of guy and dropped out of all of them. I might have stayed in them if the internet hadn’t happened. The internet is probably the biggest reason why so many guys don’t have friends today.

And when men are social, the driving force behind it is to get laid. Once I got married I began losing interest in going out, especially to parties. And I have to admit that I made friends with so many women because I was also attracted to them. Nothing happened in that regard, but I believe I enjoy the company of women because I’m programmed to chase after women and to consider them pleasant company. I’ve wondered if I would keep up female friendships if that programming had been turned off.

Unless we have a shared interest I’m not sure guys have a reason to get together. I’m not sure we crave each other’s company. We like to compete with each other, and we like to work together on a project, build something, be on a team, work towards a goal, or fix something together. Women seem to have the ability to just be friends without a purpose. To just hang out. All those lonely guys in the articles seem to be both unlucky in love and without a purpose.

I do have shared interests with all my female friends, but it’s at a smaller percentage than I have with Mike and Connell. Actually, many of my interests and all my hobbies bore my women friends. I wish my female friends had more male-like qualities. Probably all of them would call me sexist if I said why. But then I’m often called sexist by my women friends because I like to make generalizations about males and females.

I do wonder about all the men in these articles who can’t make any friends. Maybe they never leave their apartment. You have to leave the house to make friends. That’s probably why I haven’t made any new friends in the last decade. And I have to wonder why men don’t make more female friends. Guys who are married probably are like me and gave up socializing after getting married. But unmarried guys should be out there socializing – especially if they are under fifty and still want to find a wife. However, I’ve known a lot of guys who told me they don’t like being friends with women, and once they gave up on getting married or getting laid, just gave up on women.

The internet has allowed me to make a lot of online male friends. But that’s because I get to meet people who are interested in my exact interests without leaving home. For example, I like science fiction magazines that were published from 1939-1975. I and two online friends, one from Great Britain and the other from South Africa, created a Facebook group devoted to science fiction short stories and it now has 642 members. Many of them love the same old science fiction magazines that I do. I used to have two friends that loved those magazines that lived in town. One died, and the other moved away. Sometimes it’s hard to find friends with the same exact interest.

JWH

Is It Worth the Effort to Create a Database to Store Memories I’ll Forget?

by James Wallace Harris, 11/16/22

This weekend, while my sister was here visiting from Florida, we watched The Automat. It’s a lovely nostalgic documentary about the Horn & Hardart Automat restaurants that were in Philadelphia and New York City from 1902 to 1991. What made the story so charming is it combined history with sociology, pop culture, and interviews with famous people who related fond memories of visiting the Automats. The Automat portrayed a unique subculture.

I told my sister this documentary reminded me of another I liked very much but I couldn’t remember its name or even its subject. That was rather frustrating. After she went to the airport yesterday, I began struggling to remember that documentary. I got on Google and tried search terms such as “nostalgic documentaries” and “quirky documentaries.” I went through many lists, discovering documentaries I had seen, liked, and forgotten, but didn’t find the one I wanted. I had a vague sense it involved a household fixture. During the hours of trying to dredge up what the documentary was about, I recalled it dealt with music, but not normal music, maybe it was about jingles in ads. Then the word “Broadway” popped into my mind.

I put the word Broadway in IMDB and came up with Bathtubs Over Broadway. It was on Netflix and I went and watched some of it again. It’s about a writer, Steve Young, who wrote for The Late Show with David Letterman. Part of his job was finding oddball records for Letterman to make fun of on the show. Young discovered that during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s corporations would spend huge sums of money putting on musicals at their conventions, and they made commemorative soundtrack albums to give to their salesmen. Sometimes these corporations spent more on producing these shows than some famous musicals on Broadway. Again, this documentary combined history, sociology, pop culture, and interviews to document a unique subculture.

Now, this essay isn’t about those shows, but about remembering those shows, or remembering anything. I often struggle to recall a name of a person, book, movie, album, TV show, event, etc. I’ve done this all my life, but it seems to be getting worse now that I’m older. And, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention, I’ve been wondering if there is a technique or system I could develop to help me remember.

My first thought was to keep lists. My second thought was to make flashcards. My third thought was it had to work with my phone. The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) has a feature that allows registered users to keep lists, so I started one for documentaries I’ve watched. Weeks ago, I also started a list in Notes on my iPhone for movies and TV shows I’ve seen, but I might move it to IMDB.

One reason I feel the pressure to remember books, TV shows, movies, and documentaries is that whenever I talk with my friends, one of the main topics is what we’ve been reading or watching. And during my weekly get-togethers or phone calls, I often forget what I’ve seen or read during the past week.

However, is all this list-making worth the effort? I’ve tried it before and failed. It takes a bit of time, a little effort, and discipline. I have faithfully maintained a books-read list since 1983 and that has paid off in many ways. I’ve often wished I had started that list with Treasure Island, a book my mother read to me in 3rd grade in 1959. So a log of all the TV shows and movies I’ve watched would have been just as handy.

But how practical is it to keep lists of everything we want to remember? What about a list of everyone I’ve ever known? Or a list of everywhere I’ve ever lived, including vacation spots? They wouldn’t be impractical long lists.

Most of my memory struggles could be solved with five to ten good lists.

Have I just come up with a new idea for a social media service or an extra feature for Facebook? When do kids get their first smartphone or tablet? How young can you start entering data into your memory database?

It’s amazing that we have memories at all. I have no idea how molecules in the brain record what we experience. It’s amazing but unreliable. What if we had a reliable external memory? How would that change us and society?

What if we had photos and video clips of everyone we’ve ever met? Or at least got to know? You know those videos of people whose fathers took one picture a day or year for decades to make a speeded-up version of their growth? What if we all did that with our family and friends over our lifetime?

What would this take to make this happen? We have some of the technology right now. It would just take discipline and maybe ten or fifteen minutes a day. I started with my reading log in 1983. Several years ago I began using Goodreads. Now I’m using IMDB. None of these methods is perfect. What’s needed is software designed specifically to be external memory, with features that helped with recording and retrieval.

All of this makes me wonder just how much we want to remember? It might not be that much. Theoretically, we could record everything we see and hear to video, but I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t want that much. It would be nice to just have a few minutes of video of our peak experiences. Isn’t what we really want a finite number of concrete facts? A handful of lists, a diary, and a collection of photos and videos might do the trick.

So, how much of our life could be remembered in one terabyte?

JWH

Dang, I Broke My TV Watcher

by James Wallace Harris, 11/5/22

I seem to be losing my ability to watch television. In the past year or two, when I try to watch TV by myself, I have the hardest time getting into a TV show or movie. If I’m watching television with Susan or a friend I have no trouble settling into the show, but if I’m alone, I often abandon a show after five or ten minutes. Because I’m a lifelong TV addict used to filling my evenings with the boob tube, this is disturbing.

I’ve got sixty-seven years of solid practice watching TV, so why am I losing this skill now? Some of my earliest memories are of watching TV when I was four. I started watching television with the 1955-1956 season, but sometime in 2021, I began noticing I had a problem, maybe even earlier, but it’s painfully obvious in 2022.

The TV watcher part of my brain has broken. And it’s not for trying. Every evening I try getting into several movies and TV shows. Every once in a while, I find one that my mind will latch onto, but it’s getting rarer. So I’m developing some theories about why my brain is broken.

The Gilligan Island Effect

I loved Gilligan’s Island back in 1964 when it first aired. But as I got older I could no longer watch it. My friend Connell and I use Gilligan Island as our example of being young and stupid. Whenever I catch it on TV now I cringe and wonder how could I ever been so easily amused. That feeling is also true for The Monkees. It embarrasses me to recall those were once among my favorite shows. Now I understand why my dad used to pitch a fit when they were on, telling me and my sister we were morons.

As we age we become more sophisticated in our pop culture consumption. I assumed that development stopped when I got into my twenties because I pretty much watched the same kind of shows for the next several decades. However, with The Sopranos, TV jumped a level in sophistication, and for most of the 21st century, I’ve been consuming ever more sophisticated TV content.

What if my TV-watching mind has gotten jaded with all TV? So everything now feels stupid like Gilligan’s Island did when I got a couple years past twelve?

The TV Buddy Effect

As I said, I can watch all kinds of TV shows and movies if I’m watching them with other people. And looking back over my life I realized I watched a lot of TV with other people. With my family growing up. With friends when I was single. With Susan for most of my married life. With my friend Janis when Susan was working out of town Mondays through Fridays.

When Susan retired and Janis moved to Mexico, things changed. Susan now wants to watch her favorite TV shows from the 20th century and I don’t. So she sits in the living room with her TV and cross-stitches while watching endless reruns of her favorite shows. She likes old shows because she doesn’t have to look at them while she sews. I sit in the den and try to find something to watch on my own. Over the last few years, I’ve had less and less luck until I’m starting to wonder if I can’t watch TV alone at all anymore.

Susan and I do watch some TV together. Around 5:30 we watch Jeopardy and the NBC Nightly News that we record. It’s a family habit and the cats sleep in our laps. On Wednesdays we watch Survivor.

This year I was able to binge-watch Game of Thrones. I had watched it as it came out, and when two of my friends living in other cities each expressed a desire to rewatch the entire series I joined them. I discussed each episode with Linda and Connell in separate phone calls.

The YouTube Effect

Let me clarify something. I can watch about an hour of YouTube a day, and I can channel surf trying to find something to watch for another hour. (By the way, that drives Susan crazy. Another reason she likes watching TV by herself.)

My dwindling ability to watch TV has coincided with my growing love of watching YouTube TV. I have to wonder if watching endless short videos and constantly clicking from one subject to another has broken the TV watcher in my brain, so I can’t stick with longer shows.

The Relevance Effect

Last week I binge-watched A Dance to the Music of Time, a four-part miniseries based on the twelve-novel series by Anthony Powell. I had seen it before, but because I was now reading the books I wanted to watch it again. That seems to suggest if I have a good reason to watch television that I have no problem sticking to a show. My mind isn’t completely defective. I’m now on the fourth book in the series, and I’ve bought a biography of Powell and a character concordance to supplement my reading. The series has over 300 characters.

Knowing the Magician’s Tricks Effect

Another theory I’ve developed deals with my studies in fiction. As I read and think about how fiction works, I’ve paid more attention to how movies and television shows are constructed too. I’ve noticed that I often quit a movie or TV show when I spot the puppeteer. I can hardly stand to watch a mystery or thriller nowadays because they seem so obviously manipulated.

Male Aging Effect

I remember now how my uncles as they got older stopped watching TV except for sports, and even then, still not often. My male friends stopped going to the movies years ago, and I’ve finally stopped myself. I’m now doing what Susan and I used to laugh about her father – going to sleep in his den chair after dinner. Since we bought Susan’s parent’s house when they died, I’m going to sleep in the very same den, around the very same time – 7:30.

Conclusion

Because I sometimes find shows that hook me, I figure my TV watcher isn’t completely broken. I do worry that it will conk out completely. Right now I spend my evenings listening to books or music, and I worry that those abilities might break if I overuse them. I’m thinking my TV watcher needs new kinds of TV content to watch, but I have no idea what that would be.

With so many premium channels cranking out so many kinds of quality shows for the last two decades, I worry that they’ve done everything to death. One reason my mind responded so well to YouTube is the content is very different from regular streaming TV content. But I feel like I’m about to reach the end of YouTube too. I’m starting to think TV shows and movies are like clickbait, that once you’re used to all the variety of bait, you become jaded and stop clicking.

JWH

p.s. I’m using DALL-E 2 to generate the art for my blog.

Can Fiction Educate As Well As Nonfiction?

by James Wallace Harris, 11/2/22

I turn 71 this month, and getting older is getting harder. Being old is nothing like I imagined. That’s a problem for me because I like to be prepared, and being prepared requires anticipating the possibilities.

Last year I read The Art of Dying Well: A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life by Katy Butler. It’s a useful handbook giving tips about healthcare for the elderly, plus Butler relates plenty of stories about people she met who were going through a variety of issues as they approached death. I learned a lot from her book. People tend to decide between two paths toward the end of life. Some want to take advantage of everything medicine has to offer, and others prefer to take a gentler path, choosing less aggressive medical procedures, or even refusing treatment. One of the best lessons of the book is doctors will go to extremes to keep you alive unless you learn to say no. And for me, the important part of The Art of Dying Well is learning when to say no, and how to decide what you want before you lose control of your situation.

When I read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout this week, I was surprised by how it inadvertently taught many of the same lessons. Although it’s called a novel, it’s a collection of thirteen interrelated short stories, and often those fictional stories were like the case studies in Butler’s book. Olive is in her late sixties at the beginning of the book, and seventy-four at the end. I was particularly horrified by the final accounts of Olive’s husband, Henry.

Olive Kitteridge is a book that offers a series of intense emotional impacts. And most of them made me think about how I will deal with a particular issue if it should happen to me. Henry’s fate is the hardest to contemplate. One day he and Olive are going to the grocery store and when he steps out of the car, he falls to the ground. He’s had a sudden stroke that leaves him blind, unable to walk or talk, and probably has left him deaf. He’s put in a nursing home where he needs to be cared for like a small child. To me, that’s scarier than anything Stephen King ever imagined. And how do you prepare for something like that?

It would help to have all the proper legal paperwork ready. And it would help if others knew your wants. That’s covered in the Butler book, but it’s covered in more detail in Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life by Louise Aronson. Aronson is a doctor who eventually got into geriatric medicine. Her book is heavier than The Art of Dying Well, with more clinical details. It has a tremendous wealth of information, but I found Aronson’s structure for her book somewhat disappointing. Elderhood has a clearly laid out structure but Aronson doesn’t always stick to it.

Both nonfiction books are excellent handbooks for anticipating getting older, especially for the medical and legal details. But the novel, Olive Kitteridge, was also excellent for the same purpose, but in a different way. I guess it’s a handbook for philosophically preparing for our last years. Some of its most important lessons were about communication, or more precisely, the lack of communication.

Much of the novel is about waiting until it’s too late to express our true selves. One of the strongest reasons why people want an afterlife is so they can meet up with dead loved ones. Is that because we really want to tell them something? Or that we really want to ask them something? I know that’s true for me.

I loved reading Olive Kitteridge enough that I’m going to read more Elizabeth Strout books and have already started on Olive, Again – a sequel with additional short stories about Olive Kitteridge and the people she knew. I’m also keeping The Art of Dying Well and Elderhood to reread again and again as I get older.

JWH

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