Thursday, January 15, 2004

I had a marvelous lunch discussion last week this time last week. It took a variety of twists and turns, from tales of lunches in France and travels in China to stories of the history and structure of Oxford University. As we walked back to Soda Hall from the food court where we'd eaten, the topic turned to Byzantine history. As we wrapped up the conversation in the office, Beresford Parlett commented that history seems a great deal more relevant and interesting as you get older. I raised an eyebrow at that; I enjoy reading history, though my chronological memory is too poor for me to ever be more than an amateur. Christof saw my raised eyebrow, laughed, and said Don't worry, we'll count you as old already. Parlett chuckled and mentioned that a friend once gave him a clipping of a New Yorker cartoon, in which a woman is patting her husband on the shoulder and saying to friends: Well, we were all young once -- except for Beresford.

I thought about that as I took BART home yesterday after eating dinner with Winnie and reading from Cooke's America. It was George Santayana who said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it -- and it is telling that I know so many people who remember that phrase (if not who said it), but remember little of their history studies. Somehow my middle and high school teachers often lost the story of history. I like Cooke's history for the same reasons I liked Barzun's Dawn to Decadence: they are works to be savored, full of opinions, perspectives, and stories written in language that is at once elegant and clear. I enjoy historical stories, fiction and nonfiction alike, and find recently I've spent ever-larger fractions of my free reading time relishing tales of Byzantium and Persia, feudal Japan and Communist China, Egypt and Axum, the character of Emperor Justinian and of Thomas Jefferson.

There can be a chauvinism of youth against history -- with such a brave new world before us, why learn about the old one? Quizzes that involve the number of casualties at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire hardly help the situation. My high school European history teacher had the right idea: he told history as a story, in his droll style, with characters and plots. I did less well on the European history exam than I later did on the American history exam; but I enjoyed the European history class more, and I have retained more of it to the present day.

But since the Romans had no computers and the Greeks no matrix algebra, perhaps I should save my historical musings for a later hour.

  • Currently drinking: Black coffee