Photoshopping Our Reading

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 3, 2018.

Recently I read “Problematic Classics: Four Questions to Ask When Beloved Books Haven’t Aged Well” by Matt Mikalatos over at Tor.com. Mikalatos asks what to do when reading a book that expresses hateful views by the author or characters. Basically, he asks: Should I ever recommend such a work? Can I read it privately? Should I read something like it without the hate? or Should I write something like it without the hate? He goes on to mention problems with T. H. White, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, and H. P. Lovecraft.

censorship

I too have that problem. I can no longer read Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and other classic southern writers because of the n-word. But that also stops me from listening to Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, and Ester Dean. And I’m not sure I should be censoring those artists. But my liberal upbringing makes me cringe at any utterance of the n-word despite the context.

Mikaloatos wonders if it’s kosher to read old works with hate in them if he can’t recommend them to others. Should a few offensive passages spoil what is otherwise a masterpiece of creativity? There are some nasty parts in The Bible, should we reject it too? Is there anything in this world without flaws?

But this begs the question: Should we read only what’s pleasant and nice? The past is full of nasty hateful people. Then again, so is the present. When I read a book from the 19th century I want it to teach me about what people were like in the past. I don’t want a cleaned up version. It’s enlightening if we understand the past in all its dimensions.

It bothered me when I learned that The Hardy Boys books have been rewritten several times to clean up and modernize the originals. Maybe with some books, we should just forget them, because we don’t want to pass on problems of the past to young readers. But do we want to completely protect the young from the things we don’t want them to become?

It’s troubling to me that Mikalatos’ suggests that we substitute clean modern works that emulate older problem works. This seems Orwellian to me, like how the communists used to retouch photographs to remove dissidents from history. I think there is something dangerous about white-washing history. But that assumes literature is part of history and not a yummy snack that can be reformulated with a healthier recipe. I’d rather read Pride and Prejudice than a modern historical novel that uses the same setting. And is it fair to Tolkien and C. S. Lewis to reject them for an imitator, or to imitate them? That reminds me of Remake by Connie Willis, where one of her characters has the job of removing smoking and drinking from classic movies like Casablanca.

My wife and I watched a Doris Day/Rock Hudson film the other night, Lover Come Back, and we said to each other that this once very squeaky clean film would now be seen as horribly sexist. There would be no way to just photoshop over a few problems, it would have to be tossed out completely if everything from the past had to be politically correct.

There’s a trend by the latest generation to reject the past if it makes them uncomfortable. Life is complicated, hard, vicious, confusing, overwhelming, and it’s both insanely good and evil. I can understand readers wanting books with nicer realities to escape into, but how often should we be escaping reality? Is the only purpose of books to entertain?

First, are we judging the author for their views or their characters views? H. P. Lovecraft was racist and anti-semitic. Mikalatos asks if we can throw away the Lovecraft stories that reveal his hate and keep the ones that don’t, or do we throw away all of his work because they come from a hateful person? I never liked Lovecraft’s stories, but he was very influential on many writers and several of them worked on a shared mythos that’s quite creative. Lovecraft’s work is essential to understanding the history of the horror genre. If I met young readers who loved horror novels I would tell them about Lovecraft, but I’d also warn them of his personal failings.

A lot of people make fun of trigger warnings, but I see nothing wrong with them. I believe stories from the past should come with scholarly introductions that put the story and the author into a historical and literary context without spoilers. And in some cases, I think some stories would require an afterward with further explanations that do have spoilers.

Older folks often make fun of younger folks for not knowing history. If history was the only subjects kids studied in their K-12 years, they’d still be ignorant of most of it. But I do believe younger people today want to reject history more than we did when we were young. They want to photoshop history to make it nicer. They believe if they can ignore the nastiness of reality their world will feel better. And that is true. I don’t watch the local news and I’m much happier living where I do because of it. However, I think if we’re going to wear rose-colored glasses, we can’t tint out all the ugliness.

Sure, we all have to find ways to cope, and if avoiding certain novels, movies, and television shows help, then so be it. I once heard a joke about a man who pistoled-whipped himself every morning so he wouldn’t be afraid of getting mugged. A certain amount of pain can toughen us up, but only so much.

The real lesson to learn is to read about hate without becoming hateful. I was reading Thomas Merton recently and was moved by his faith in goodness. Merton had been a Trappist monk before he died, believed goodness came from God. I don’t. But then I’m an atheist. I do believe in goodness. I believe we can all be better people. That requires knowing what is good, and what is bad. You can’t be good by ignoring the bad because becoming good means overcoming the bad. Our evolution as a species involves constantly mutating into who we want to be by jettisoning what we don’t. Just hiding from evil only means sticking our heads in cotton candy.

Yesterday I went to see BlacKkKlansman. I didn’t want to go because I knew it would be full of nastiness. But I’m glad I went. It was a work of art that everyone should see, but I can also understand some people not being able to handle it. When I left the theater I had a Christian revelation (even though I’m not a Christian). Forgiveness is learning to comprehend what we want to destroy. Or run away from, or ignore. Maybe that’s where I’m going when I say we shouldn’t photoshop our literary history. Or the start. But forgiveness is hard.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

Will the Real Charles Dickens, Please Stand Up?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 7, 2018

The other night I saw The Man Who Invented Christmas, a delightful film about how Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. When it was over I asked myself: How much of it was true? I’ve read one short biography of Dickens in the past, Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley. So I knew some details in the movie were based on truth. But I doubted its facts fit history in the same way the screenwriter presented them.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

After watching the film, I read Mr. Dickens and His Carol, a novel by Samantha Silva. Silva spent fifteen years working on this story, originally written as a screenplay. Her novel featured a more complicated story than the film The Man Who Invented Christmas but invents and fictionalizes a great deal more. The movie is lighthearted and fun, focusing on Dickens’ economic problems and how they inspired him to write A Christmas Carol in a few weeks. The film shows Dickens being haunted by the imaginary characters he created, and I’m sure that’s how many readers picture writers discovering their characters.

Silva’s novel creates a made-up fantasy life for Dickens, that worked to explain the psychological needs that drove him to write A Christmas CarolMr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva does not even attempt to be historically accurate, creating a fantasy about writing a fantasy. Although her novel was entertaining enough to keep me reading, I was never sure if it was ethical just to make up a fictional alternate history for a real person. Isn’t it a kind of flattering libel? Isn’t it just cashing in on another writer’s fame? Dickens might have loved it, and he might not, but I believe he’d likely want a cut of the royalties.

The film had questionable points too. Over the last decade, I’ve noticed a growing number of novels and movies based on real lives. I find them both compelling and disturbing. I feel we need to ask hard questions about fictionalize biographies?

  • Should we expect biographical fiction to be essentially true?
  • Aren’t these writers just cashing in on famous names?
  • What responsibilities do historical fiction writers have for teaching history?
  • Should we assume all fictional history is just fun fantasy?
  • Is it fair to historical people to remember them as fantasy characters?
  • How do we verify the fictional facts?

With two competing fictional biographies covering the same event, I felt compelled to hunt down facts.

The film, The Man Who Invented Christmas is based on a non-fiction book, The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford. This book covers recorded history. But should we assume since the movie is based on it, the movie will be historically accurate? Like novelists, screenwriters invent, and both are selling entertainment to make a buck. My guess is most of the movie is made up.

Now I needed real history to judge my fictional histories. I got out my unread copy of Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin, a substantial biography. The Dickens I found here for 1843 was completely unlike to two fictional Dickens in 2018. Sure, some of its details were sprinkled in the two fictional stories but Tomalin’s black and white facts did not paint either colorful Dickens I saw in the film or novel. And each of the colorful Dickens is distinctly different too. For example, in one Dickens confides to his groom, and in another to a young maid. In one, his wife is part of the story, and in the other Dickens’ wife is conveniently shuttled off to Scotland. In each, we meet two different inspirations for Tiny Tim. In one, Dickens is the spendthrift, in the other, Dickens blames his wife.

I’d like to think when I read a historical novel or watch a historical film, I’m actually learning history. But whenever I read history books after imbibing a fictional version of the past, I’m always disappointed. Last year, both Dunkirk and The Crown felt very real historically, but were they? I haven’t read anything to verify them yet.

My memory of Dickens will always be historically corrupted by the visual Dickens of the film, played by a charming Dan Stevens (Matthew of Downton Abbey fame). Silva’s fantasy Dickens will always intrude when I reread Great Expectations and David Copperfield. Is either fair to the real Charles Dickens? Don’t I have a duty to study the recorded facts we have on Charles Dickens? Will the real Charles Dickens, please stand up? Or will we always create an endless parade of make-believe Charles Dickens?

I found both Inventing Scrooge by Carlo DeVito, a well-reviewed book on the specific subject, and the non-fiction book version of The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford, to be more digestible than the Tomalin biography for knowing how Dickens wrote his most famous story. Her biography was too large, complex, and detailed. I’m not ready for her graduate course just yet, but what I read was damn impressive.

I do want to know the real Charles Dickens. But I found comparing the two nonfiction books on the writing of A Christmas Carol to be revealing about the struggle to understand history. Nonfiction writers must speculate too, even if it’s just in the way they present their facts. When reading nonfiction we must also distrust what we read. We should always be skeptical.

I found the two fictionalize Dickens very entertaining. I don’t think they shouldn’t exist. However, I would say we should never enjoy a fictional account without balancing it with a nonfictional account. To answer my questions:

  • Never assume any fact in fiction is true.
  • Yes, writers are cashing in by using ready-made, well-known characters.
  • Novelists who write historical fiction should always produce an afterward that explain their research and delineate their speculation.
  • Assume all historical fiction is fun and we should get real history from nonfiction.
  • I bet most historical figures would be horrified and amused by how they are remembered. Many would be mad enough to sue if we time traveled them to the present. Which probably explains why so many want their letters and papers burned, or why they work so hard to preserve them.
  • The only way to verify fictional facts is to read multiple nonfictional sources. We can never know what historically happened. There are real people that I’ve read many biographies written about them, and I’d say four is the minimum to start getting a decent feeling for what they might have been like. And that’s only a might of.

Then, I saw another historical film, Mary Shelley (2017). Even though this was a bomb at the box office, I greatly admired it. I really wanted to believe it was true. My wife and I both enjoyed the movie thoroughly, and we didn’t fathom why it’s gotten such a low Rotten Tomato score of 36%.

I want to believe Mary Shelley accurately portrayed Mary Shelley because it shows her as a determined, strong-willed woman, that succeeds against a culture that wanted to crush her. If we love a story about history, we want it to be the truth, don’t we? The film makes me want to know more about the real creator of Frankenstein’s monster and the author of the first real science fiction novel. I guess that impulse is a credit to historical fiction.

Now I need to go read In Search of Mary Shelley, a new biography by Fiona Sampson.

In Search of Mary Shelley by Fiona Sampson

Mary Shelley 2017

JWH

 

Should I Abandon My Bible Study?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 6, 2017

I’m an atheist, so I don’t study the Bible in the same way as people of faith. I have two goals for Bible study. First, I consider Christianity, or any religion for that matter, like a language. To talk to Christians requires understanding their language. The Bible is an integral part of western civilization, and to understand our history requires understanding the Bible. This is still akin to learning a language. The details of history are often idiomatically based on biblical references.

The Bible

The second reason why I study the Bible is to understand how information is transmitted over space and time. Think of my interest like the game of telephone kids play – also known as “Chinese whispers.” Jesus said many things two thousand years ago, and now we hear what he said repeated through thousands of distortions. Is there any way to backtrack and try to filter out two millennia of noise?

I’ve always felt both approaches to this kind of Bible study are practical and intellectually rewarding. However, I’m beginning to fear both goals are pointless. I’m starting to doubt I can ever communicate with a religious person, nor can we ever know what Jesus actually said. One proof of my doubt is all the faithful firmly believe they actually know what Jesus said even though they each have a unique interpretation. In my reading of the gospels, I would say it’s impossible to follow the teachings of Jesus and own a gun or pursue wealth, but millions of Christians would vehemently disagree. Where’s the truth?

This issue came up today when I saw How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman was on sale from Amazon in November for $1.99 for the Kindle version. I thought about buying and rereading that book. Ehrman is my favorite teacher for explaining how Christian memes evolved over time, and consider this book the best explanation how Christians believe Jesus, a man, is now God. My personal assumption from studying the Bible is Jesus never claimed to be God but was made God by his followers. Ehrman backs this up with historical analysis. I feel these six books by Bart D. Ehrman are the best explanation I’ve found that removes the distortion of playing telephone with Jesus’ original sayings 2000 years ago.

Ehrman’s approach is to study Jesus as history, not theology. Each book takes a different tack in solving a historical puzzle. I believe many of the problems we face in society today are caused by irrational beliefs about Jesus. However, I’m not sure Ehrman’s results can ever be used to logical dispel such beliefs when talking to a person of faith.

Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen has convinced me that irrational thinking is so entrenched in American society that logical discourse will never work. In fact, Andersen makes a good case that two-thirds of Americans embrace a “believing makes truth” philosophy.  They feel rational thinking is out to get them, that scientific knowledge is oppressive, and freedom is being allowed to believe what they want.

Thus, why I wonder if it’s even worthwhile to continue my Bible study.

Because there are billions of interpretations of who Jesus was and what he said it’s impossible to ever know what he actually said and meant. This allows believers to believe anything they want and still claim they are following his teachings. The only logical way I can think of disproving their belief logic is to analyze the words of Jesus by doing what the theologians of the Jesus Seminar did. This was a group of Bible scholars who voted on probable accuracy of every saying we have of Jesus (the ones printed in red in some Bibles). They color-coded the results to statistically reveal which sayings the historical Jesus might have said, with red being the most likely. This is a wisdom of crowds approach.

Thus, if you take just the red, and maybe the pink quotes from The Five Gospels, we might assume that’s what the historical Jesus taught. The trouble is, the results do not match what most people believe today. And since believers believe belief trumps everything, this logical approach will be no proof to them.

I’m wondering if I shouldn’t tune out all discussion of religion completely. Don’t try to understand or explain it. Just write religion off as complete irrational thinking. I was hoping the scientific and faithful could meet halfway, but after reading Fantasyland I’ve given up on that idea.

When I read science or technical books I feel I’m living in a rational reality. I have hope for the future. When I read books written by true believers I feel despair. Their irrational thoughts convince me society is crashing.

JWH

Looking Forwards v. Looking Backwards

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Do you read books about the past, or about now, or the future?

Our Nig by Harriet WilsonThis morning I started work on an essay about African-American fiction in the 19th century. It began with a question that had popped into my head: “Who was the first black novelist in our country?” This kind of fun sleuthing on the internet inspires me to write essays. I quickly came across articles about how Henry Louis Gates, Jr. had discovered a long forgotten book in the early 1980s called Our Nig; or, Sketches From the Life of a Free Black (1859) by Harriet Wilson. That made me want to research a number of other things. Have earlier novels been uncovered since? What were the second, third, fourth, fifth novels? What about short stories? Were any bestsellers in their day. Before long I realized I could spend weeks on this project.

Men-Into-SpaceI usually think of several ideas a day for researching and writing. I start work on just a fraction of these ideas, and complete work on damn few. Another idea I got yesterday was to write about Men Into Space, a one-season TV show of 38-episodes (1959-60) that worked to be very realistic about space flight. A lady in my online book club mentioned it and I was surprised I hadn’t known about it before now. It’s not available on DVD except as DVD-R sales through places like eBay (because it’s in the public domain). It is available to watch online at YouTube. However, I did find a book, Men Into Space by John C. Fredriksen that extensively writes about the series. I’d love to write a book like this – if I could focus my mind for a year or two.

The Spacesuit Film - A History 1918-1969 by Gary WestfahlWhile researching Men Into Space I came across another book The Spacesuit Film: A History 1918-1969 by Gary Westfahl that covered Men Into Space as well as other movies and television shows that prefigured the space age. Hell, this exactly the kind of book I’d love to write too. But can you imagine the time it would take? But wouldn’t it be fun to watch all those old movies and television shows analyzing them for how they imagined the future? However, how many people read such books? I want to, but the $39.95 price for the paperback stops me. Even the $19.99 price for the Kindle edition is making me think long and hard.

This suggests another idea for researching. How many people buy and read these esoteric kinds of history books? How many people love to study tiny segments of forgotten history? I have this nagging desire to write something longer than blog essays. This month was supposed to be the month I began a book-length project. And I did start on an idea, but once again got side-tracked by too many distractions. But I’m back to focusing my mind on the project.

I have to ask myself, who is going to read what I write and why? Why spend a year, or several, writing something few people will want to read? It occurred to me this morning I could divide books into three categories: about the past, about the present, about the future. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction.

To Be A Machine by Mark O'ConnellI’ve always loved science fiction, which is future-oriented. But when I think about writing about science fiction, that’s past-oriented. Because I write for Book Riot, I can also write about contemporary publishing. I even think about writing books like To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O’Connell, which is essentially about how science fiction is affecting our world today.

I also came across this pledge drive for Farah Mendlesohn yesterday. She is writing a book about Robert A. Heinlein and is looking for backers. She’s gotten 143 supportors so far. This is also exactly the kind of book I’d love to write – but is that the rough number of people who would be interested in reading it?

I’m now worrying that I’m spending too much time thinking about the past. Is that because I’m getting older and it’s natural for aging folks to analyze yesterday? I assume that many people who like my blog do so because they are somewhat like me – they are older and thinking about when they grew up, and we all loved some of the same things.

I believe my less popular essays at Book Riot are due to writing about topics that bore their demographic readership, which tilts young and female. This makes me wonder if I should accept that I like to write about things that appeal to a subset of aging baby boomers, or if I should work to write about topics that have a wider appeal across different age groups.

My guess is writing about contemporary subjects or about the future has more universal appeal. I wonder if writing about today or tomorrow isn’t more psychologically positive for both me and readers. But I’m so fascinated by the past, especially esoteric subjects.

I’m currently reading The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman about Paul Erdős, a brilliant mathematician, and The Five Gospels, about the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who work to figure out what the historical Jesus actually said. Both of these books are intensely fascinating. Both of these books are about the past and have little relevance to today or tomorrow.

I have to wonder if I’ve given up on tomorrow because I don’t have much hope for the future, either for myself, or the planet, and I’m finding pleasure and meaning by exploring the past.

I’ve always loved science fiction but when I read science fiction today I’m usually very critical of works that are based on unrealistic ideas. I don’t believe in all those far out futures like I used to. As a writing challenge maybe I should work to write about positive futures that could be realistic, ones we can hope to find. Yet, my most popular essay ever is, “50 Reasons Why Humans Are Too Stupid To Survive.” Gloom and doom does sell. Hell, the TV shows my friends and I binge-watch focus on awful people and horrible events.

Writing is about focus. Writing a book is about intense focus over a great time span. I’m wondering if choosing to write about the past isn’t a way of escaping the present or future? I also wonder if writing about the future isn’t a way to give myself hope for tomorrow?

Maybe you can’t relate to this topic because it’s about writing. Think of it this way. Do you love watching old movies and television shows, or new ones? Do you listen to old music or new music? If you’re mentally young, no matter what your age is, you’ll be enjoying whatever is new.

I’m being more and more drawn into the past. 1950s movie westerns, mid-20th-century written science fiction, 1960s romantic movie comedies, 19th-century novels, 1950s jazz, 1940s film noir, 1920s modernistic literature, Victorian scientific romances, etc. Growing up, I always thought about the future…

JWH

 

How Much Time Do You Spend Consuming Pop Culture?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, June 24, 2017

In past centuries, living left little free time. Survival was all time-consuming. Twelve-hour workdays were the norm once. Few people had time for hobbies or pursuing pop culture. And if we weren’t working we were raising families or maintaining our little castles.

Times have changed. The work week keeps getting shorter. More people choose not to have kids or even marry. Some people spend as much time watching TV as working. And a lot more people are retired or unemployed. Probably, if you’re not depressed, strung out on drugs, or chasing someone to have sex with, you’re consuming popular culture with all that extra time.

Pop culture

How many hours a week do you spend reading, watching television, going to the movies, listening to music, binge-watching the internet, looking at comic books, going to museums, attending plays, or any other popular pursuit reported on by Entertainment Weekly? And what about video games? Or VR? Are they pop culture or something new?

Are the hours starting to add up? Is mass consumption of pop culture good or bad? I really don’t know. As a retired person I realize most of my time is occupied with pop culture pursuits. I’d like to think I’m consuming art, that I’m psychologically imbibing in the most creative cuisine our culture offers. Is that true? I also like to believe I’m learning about the past through consuming popular culture from other eras. For example, how well can I understand the 1920s from reading Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Wharton, Joyce, Lawrence, and Hemingway, listening to old jazz, watching silent films, look at art, and reading history books?

Would the time I spend on consuming pop culture be better spent on hobbies? TV watching and going to the movies are a big part of my social outlet. Music and reading are solitary pursuits. Hobbies are generally solitary too. I could get up every day and do something more productive than consuming art and writing about it.

Most biological beings spend most of their time looking for food, mating, rearing their young, and avoiding being prey to other biological beings. Isn’t it rather fascinating that humans excrete art and consume it? We used to say humans were the only animals that made tools – until we discovered a whole bunch of other tool using species. Then we said humans were unique because we have language. Well, we discovered that wasn’t true either. More and more we’re finding examples where animals play, have friends, and show curiosity. But do other animals create art? What about the bowerbird?

Satin-Bower-Bird-Nest

Is art tools we make to stimulate our minds? Or is art external remembrances we make for shared memories? Pop culture is art for the masses. Art used to be unique, a one of a kind piece. Pop culture depends on mass producing artwork that we like to share. Pop culture feels more nourishing to my soul than air, water, and food, although I couldn’t survive without them, and I could survive without pop culture.

Maybe I shouldn’t use the word soul. The soul doesn’t exist. It was a creative fiction of religion. (And couldn’t religion be the first pop culture creation?) Even though science cannot find any evidence for the soul, and philosophers have refuted its existence, we all feel we have one. Science shows we are not minds and bodies, but just bodies that are biologically programmed to react to our environment. So what is pop culture?

Pop culture is something we add to reality. Of course, we rearrange atoms and molecules that already exist to create art, but there is something new there. Yesterday I read “All the Animals that Love Touchscreens” and learned another way humans are not unique. Pop culture is something that even animals might perceive.

Pop culture is mass-produced art. But that also means it is art that can be saved and preserved. Pop culture artifacts remember aspects of our collective souls. There’s that word again. Religion is wrong about immortal souls. Nothing lasts forever. Neither we, our culture or our art will survive forever.

If you spend several hours a day watching television you’re consuming pop culture. Is it just a way to kill time. To distract you from life? Or do you value pop culture as an artistic achievement?

JWH

Wanted: U.S. Genealogy Database with Photographs

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 1, 2017

Friday, I attended my Aunt Louise’s funeral. She was the last living aunt on my mother’s side, dying at 94. One thing I like about funerals is seeing the photographs family members bring to the funeral. My mother was one of five sisters, and all the cousins have photographs the other cousins don’t. Especially photos of our grandparents and great grandparents. Plus each aunt & uncle had pictures of nieces & nephews some cousins have never seen. After the funeral my cousin Reed called and asked me if I had any photographs of our grandfather holding a corn cob pipe. He had a memory of seeing such a picture, but didn’t know who owned it. I only had three photos of our grandfather in my digital collection, and none were with a pipe.

Littles
[My mother’s parents probably taken in the 1950s. I’ve lost count of all their descendants.]

This got me to thinking. There should be a national genealogy database where people can upload family photos. I inherited my mother’s family photos. I have no children. There’s a good chance if I died, my wife would just toss them out. I will try to give them to my nephew, or his daughters, but I’m not sure if young people want them. It would be a shame for such artifacts of history to disappear.

Imagine logging into the U.S. Genealogy Database at the Library of Congress (it doesn’t exist) and looking up your great grandparents. What if besides showing when they were born and died, the names and dates of their parents and children – it showed photographs and documents with annotations. This shouldn’t be an impossible task. I doubt there’s been more than 1-2 billion Americans to ever live. A big number, but not for computers. Photography didn’t exist for most of our country’s history, but for the part that did in the 19th and 20th centuries, most of those photos have already been lost. We should try to save what’s left, especially while the people live who can identify the subjects in the photos.

If everyone submitted photographs of people they can identify, soon we’d have a large enough database that an artificial intelligence could begin identifying unknown subjects. Historians could go to flea markets, buy a box of old photographs, upload them to the system, and in some cases, the AI could identify them. Wouldn’t that be far out?

What if you logged into the USGDB and searched on your parents and discovered their friends had submitted photographs with your folks in them you had never seen before. Wouldn’t that be cool too? What if everyone you ever went to school, dated, or worked with submitted photos that you were in, and the AI linked them to you? What if the AI found every class and school photo ever taken of you and your family. Just before my Aunt Louise died she identify three people in this photo. If my USGDB system existed, it might eventually identify everyone. [Double click for larger view.]

1927 photo_600dpi

Goodbye Aunt Louise. She’s the redhead posing with my mother Virginia. We will all miss you.

img321

JWH

How Much History Can I Handle?

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 4, 2016

Every subject we study requires studying history.

My problems:

  • Compulsive news reading online
  • Compulsive book buying
  • Compulsive magazine buying
  • Curiosity about too many subjects
  • Can’t keep up with my reading

history

My goals:

  • Simplify my reading habits
  • Decide on the subjects I care about most
  • Learn more about those subjects
  • Focus on fewer topics for writing

I’ll never be an expert on any subject. Primarily because I’m starting too late in life, but also because I’m interested in too many topics. The best way to explain my problem is with an analogy. Have you ever noticed the difference between the magazines Popular Science, Discover, Scientific American, American Scientist and Science? This will work for any array of subject periodicals. The magazines that have wide appeal with the public will have mostly snippets of news stories, and a few short articles. Reading Popular Science or Discover often feels like reading the sponsors off a race car. When you finish an issue you remember little, even though you’ve just been told a 100 fascinating facts.

Now Scientific American and American Scientist do have pages of newsy snippets, but their compelling content is a handful of longer articles. If takes effort to read those essays, but most people can understand them if they try. When you’re finished, you feel you’ve learned something, and you’ll probably remember a good deal more from reading the first two magazines. You’ve covered fewer topics but gained more knowledge.

Finally, there’s Science. It is magazine scientists read. Its articles are terse, and very hard to comprehend. Science is readable by any well-educated person, but its so technical, and jargon filled, that few people do. Magazines like Science or Nature are general science magazines for people trained to be science specialists. Their specialized training allows them to read across disciplines at a much higher level than the average popular science reader.

The point I’m making here is my daily reading for all the subjects I’m interested in is too close to the Popular Science level.

Mentally, my curiosity flitters around like reading magazines at the dentist. If I make myself, with the aid of Google, I can read an issue of Science, but it’s no fun. It’s just too specialized. I want to discipline my mind to function around the intensity of a Scientific American article, or at least a longer article in Discover. I want to be able to write about my favorite subjects at that level. That means knowing those subjects in greater detail, which means knowing much more history.

Think of it this way. Let’s imagine we have 100 brain cells to use. Popular Science requires one cell for a 100 different news items. Science requires all 100 to understand one article. Scientific American assigns 20 cells to five topics. What I’m realizing is I need to ration my brain cells more carefully.

Each day, how is your mind applied? Is your consciousness like a reader of People magazine, or The Atlantic?  And for every pet topic you pursue, how much history do you know? We all know people who pontificate about their beloved subjects – their minds appear bloated with information. But that’s what it takes to be knowledgeable about a particular subject.

This bit of navel gazing came about because of an offer from Biblical Archeology Review (BAR) to subscribed for $7. I have a hard time resisting cheap magazine subscriptions. People who know I’m an atheist, might be puzzled why I would even be tempted by this magazine. Although I’m not a believer, I find history of The Bible fascinating. The Bible was written during a time when humanity was transitioning from pre-history to history. Like The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Bible began as oral storytelling, and then over the centuries, its stories were written down, eventually becoming canonized into the book we know today. I’ve even been wanting to write an article called, “Bible Study for Atheists,” and figured a subscription to BAR would be helpful (even though it is controversial).

No, my problem is not lack of interest, but lack of time. If I had all the time in the world I’d roam up and down history studying everything. But I don’t have that much time. Even though I’m retired, and have all my time free, it’s still not enough time. What I’m realizing is I need to ration my time spent exploring the history of my pet interests. I can only handle so much.

Rock and roll music is what got me interested in history. I started listening to AM Top 40 rock in 1962. As I grew older, I realized there were many wonderful tunes before 1962 to be discovered, so I began exploring jazz, blues and folk music of the 1950s, which led to Swing and Big Band music of the 1940s and 1930s, which took me to a different kind of jazz in the 1920s. When I get the time, I’d like to go even earlier, to the Tin Pan Alley era.

Once I learned how to move backwards in time, I began to incorporate those skills into chasing the origins of everything else I loved. In college I majored in English and studied books from the 19th and 20th century. My sense of history through novels goes back to the historical times of Jane Austen. A love of movies takes me back to the 1910s and 1920s. A love of science fiction takes me back to the 19th century again. I keep trying to get into classical music, but for some reason I have a hard time pushing into the 17th and 18th century. But the more I get into the history of science, which takes me back to the late 1500s and early 1600s, the more classical music becomes relevant. Studying The Bible jumps me back to the first millennium BCE, and connects me with Egypt, Babylon, the Levant, Greece, and then Rome, which brings me back to The New Testament, and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd centuries, which then leads me towards Byzantium, and the Middle Ages. Which connects me with Europe rediscovering the classical Greeks, and jumping back to 400 BCE. Because Plato and Aristotle impacted so many people in the 19th century, that  jumps me forward to the Transcendentalists, and then back to the Enlightenment.

I also spend a good deal of time reading science fiction, which also means tramping around the future.

This morning, while taking my shower, and thinking about how I failed to clean out my growing pile of unread magazines yesterday, I felt crazed to think I should subscribe to more magazines. Yet, I wanted to – badly. It just became obvious, that no matter how addictive my curiosity is, I can’t consume all of history. I need to specialize. But in what? And why?

Sometimes I think I should just stay closer to home in time, like anytime after 1951 when I was born. I love westerns from the 1950s, so they would be in the territory of history I could cover. But then I think about writing a piece called, “Should Westerns Be Historically Accurate?” which means prowling around the 1800s. And I really would hate to give up Austen, Dickens and Trollope. That makes me think I should extend my range of history to the year 1800. I’d get to keep Darwin, but not Newton. I might  handle that. I’d have to give up the Founding Fathers, but I’d still have The Transcendentalists and Abraham Lincoln. Not too bad of a trade. Plus I’d get to keep the The Impressionists in Europe. I’d have to give up the Roman Empire, but at least I’d have the best part of the British Empire. I’d have to give up most of the history of mathematics, but I’d get all of the history of computers.

Could I really go on a history diet and only read about events that happened after 1799? I just swiveled around in my chair and scanned my bookcases. Not much of a sacrifice – most of my books cover topics that happened since 1800. I could thin a third of my unread books if I moved the cutoff date to 1900. I easily have a quarter century of unread books that fit into that time period, which probably translate into “the rest of my life.” But there goes Tolstoy and Louisa May Alcott. But that might finally give me time to read Proust and and finish reading Virginia Woolf.

I’m probably bullshitting myself here. I have so many contemporary topics I’m interested in, that if I made the cutoff date 2010, I couldn’t keep up with all the things I’d want to read. Every time I go to the library I scan the new book shelf. I could literally spend the rest of my life only reading books published in the current year about current affairs, and still not read everything I wanted.

Maybe it’s not what I read, or the history covered, but how I read. I could simplify my life by only reading books that appear on the library’s new books shelves, and give up reading magazines and web pages. That has a lot of practical benefits. I wouldn’t have to limited myself to particular times in history, and it would give me lots of variety. And yet, it would narrow the amount of reading I feel compelled to pursue. If I actually read all the magazines I currently get, in physical and digital form, I would never have time to read books. Hell, if I just read the free articles I get from News360 and Flipboard each day, I’d be reading 24×7.

Sometimes I think reading off the internet has ruined my mind. The internet is the heroin of information.

I can’t read everything I want. I can’t study every fascinating subject. There’s too much history for every topic. Trying to tidy up my reading habits is like using Marie Kondo to tidy up my house – it’s extremely difficult. But if I want to get away from a Popular Science level of concentration it will require tidying up what I read and how. I can clean out topics I’m hoarding, or somehow limit the fire hose of information I’m drinking from. Or both.

JWH