Monday, September 21, 2009

A Read Aloud for Adults

I am not the most typical book enthusiast. This is a truth I've learned to accept over the years I have been working with books. I like classics, but I'm not keen on twentieth century classics in general. I like speculative fiction, sometimes even when it is poorly written. I like most types of non-fiction, though I bemoan the absence of literary aplomb.

Within non-fiction, my favorite genre, if I had to choose, would probably be history, which is perhaps the greatest victim of artlessness . . . not the artlessness that one might find endearing in an old grandfather, who tells the occasional raucous joke; less still the artlessness of the naïve child, who does not yet know enough to lie. No, the artlessness of the genre of history is the absence of spirit, of humanity: the artlessness of technological exigency, of the almanac, the dictionary, the windowless school designed to avoid distracting children with life. The artless historian reduces the life of history into facts and numbers, rather than using the facts and numbers to undergird creative art; conceives of history as the stick-figure rather than the portrait.

Hayden White is my hero: he boldly confronted the community of academic historians with theory that the artless presentation of history is an affectation required by the genre. You see, the failed quest for true objective thought, most often associated with Descartes, leaves the shrapnel of modernity's bold but foolish claim to absolute knowledge scattered throughout the social-sciences. Rather than being satisfied with a preponderance of evidence and rational explanation, historians are constrained by the "standards" of their academic community to pretend to objective truth.

This consideration of the genre of history, though it may be averted in personality-driven works, like those of Bill Bryson or Sarah Vowell, dominates virtually every "serious" work of history for the last century. In other words the regnant modes of discourse in the genre of history preclude art. That is why Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a classic, but your college textbook can never be.

Lost to the West has made me believe that historiography may once again aspire to beauty. It offers few bold insights, and it makes no claim to controversy, it instead tells the story of a commonly overlooked story in readable language with a rhythm that begs you to read it aloud.



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