Tuesday, September 15, 2015

I was about 11 years old when I read a "Superman" comic book in which Lex Luthor says his forthcoming attack on Metropolis will look like the second coming of the Mongol hordes. I asked my father, the school teacher, what that was. He didn't care to tell me; I could tell by his tone of voice and body language.

I never asked him a question again.

I never really got into history in high school or college. Somehow, I just picked up enough of it to do remarkably well in the history classes I took, and didn't really need to know more.

It wasn't until graduate school that I started to read in history. In part, it was because the level of analysis we needed to do required a very solid background in history which I didn't have. The other was that I began to suspect that I'd never been exposed to a really deep history of any kind, and I became suspicious about what I was being told.

Once I got out of graduate school, my desire to really read deeply in history -- of all kinds -- became a fire. I was working in a place where most of the staff knew a history of the United States that I simply didn't know. In order to be able to hold my own, I had to learn this history. And suddenly, I began to realize that most of the history I knew was superficial and incomplete.

It's hard to say what book really "spoke to me" as history, but I usually say it was Robert Middlekauff's "The Glorious Cause". It's a standard history of the American Revolution, written in 1982. I picked it up about 1992, after reading about it in the now-defunct "Washington Post Book World".

I think what really hit home for me was that Middlekauff never just stated facts. There was never a sentence that said, "General Washington decided to move south." Every sentence read, "General Washington decided to move south, because he had knowledge that the British would be moving against his north flank in two days."

That was so important: Authors always challenging themselves to ask "why?" of ever sentence. And if there wasn't an answer, or a good answer, then the narrative was incomplete and the book unfinished.

I rarely talk about the books I read. Most people don't give a flying monkey's behind about history, despite their protestations and Facebook memes. Many people are wedded to their ideology -- be it conservative or progressive -- and simply don't care to read in history to know if what they're told is true or not.

I still have my original paperback copy of "The Glorious Cause". It's pretty beat up, since I've read it maybe eight or nine times.

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