Yes, but did you actually read it?

Nearly twenty years ago, a woman who has consistently taught history at third level in Ireland surprised me by saying that she never bought history books. Her reasoning was that she anticipated that she would have to move frequently in order to have employment and it is not possible to carry half-dozen bookcases on one’s back. I did not acquire employment or, in turn, a move but I did acquire half-dozen bookcases of books that surprise me every time I look at them because many I do not actually recall reading: most are books that were picked up for the sake of a half-dozen references therein, not because they were a “cover-to-cover” worthwhile read, and, indeed, if one was to read them all cover-to-cover that would be an exercise that would probably take more than one lifetime to complete.

Rather that saying “how did I get into this ridiculous mess” I am inclined to see this situation as akin to the phenomenon of “distance reading” that is central to much digital humanities scholarship. One could stare at a bookcase and hope that, by some kind of process of osmosis, their contents will be absorbed mentally somehow, but that will not necessarily work. What digital humanities scholars do, however, is feed all the books…provided there are appropriate electronic editions in existence…into software that processes the text for you. Early attempts could be said to have produced slightly amusing results. For instance, somebody fed the complete works of William Shakespeare into processing software that produced as a factual analysis that the most common reference and, therefore, the most significant concept within the writings and worldview of Shakespeare is the word “the”. So, next time the thought crosses your mind (if for any reason it ever does cross one’s mind) what sense one has of the works of William Shakespeare, all you need tell yourself is if you are familiar with the word “the” then you know all that there is to know.

That might seem funny, or absurd, but it does reflect a trend in society, whereby word-clouds of the most frequently occurring words are used as shorthand visualisations to give one a picture of particularly broad matters with just one glance. “Yes”. “No”. “Awesome”.

The origins of this trend stem from the sheer volume of print and information (of one kind or another) that now exists in the world. By the 1950s, some governments had started to realise that the amount of clerical paper work they were producing in a single year actually surpassed the complete amount of surviving paper work that exists from the dawn of time until just one year previously. So the idea that there is simply “too much information in existence for a person to process it” is actually quite an old one. Yes, the “cupboards with blinking lights” in all those 1960s TV shows also used distance-reading techniques, at least in the imagination. Today, data analysts are “the real McCoy”.

For whatever reason, the nineteenth century is the era that first stimulated my historical imagination. This was possibly because of some instinctive identification with the romanticist sensibilities of the era. You know: if someone drew a painting (or, later a photo) of an individual who is simultaneously both observing and absorbed in the natural world, there is something inherently worthwhile about that. Likewise, if an individual rebelled about society, like the Count of Monte Cristo or something, then there is probably something intrinsically worthwhile, or even reasonable, about that too. But, of course, as per the old ‘War and Peace’ joke, nineteenth-century books could be particularly long. And guess what? That is why the literature of the nineteenth century is being given the ‘computerised Shakespeare distance reading’ treatment too, potentially with some interesting analytical results although the process is clearly totally divorced from the romanticist sensibility that produced the texts in the first place.

How do I feel about all this? I am not sure, but it does cross my mind right now that I never have actually read the Count of Monte Cristo after all. If I think of the story, I see in the mind’s eye the excellent TV movie serialisation of the novel made back in the 1990s with Gerard Depardieu in the lead role. Similarly, once upon a time, I grew interested in the crime fiction of the mid twentieth century—all those Graham Greene like novels that exist but now appear to me as purely sordid and uninteresting—but many of these were also turned into movies (that old ‘film noir’ vibe) and, I recall, as soon as I saw the movie and processed a story that way, I lost all interest in bothering to read the actual book. There’s yet another process of distance reading at work.

I am not sure where the impression actually originates, but a strong sense I have had of life in earlier ages revolves around a comparable idea to the servant girl clutching her stuffed parrot in Gustave Flaubert’s ‘A Simple Heart’ novella, where people held onto some book, or story, as something inherently meaningful to them—almost like a ‘if one is familiar with “The Good Book”, what need is there for any others?’ idea—and that is a reality that comes to define a person’s life. It is hard to imagine people today attributing a comparable significance to any one text. Does that mean that writers are the last true romantics, in the nineteenth century sense of the word, because in feeling the need to write, writers are echoing the romantic sense that the individual’s voice somehow intrinsically matters?

Sometimes I think that, contrary to a popular picture of a domesticated prison, the nineteenth century rather than the twentieth or twenty-first was actually the most individualistic era in human history, in terms of people’s sensibilities. That may not be strictly true, but perhaps it is a sense that some historians, in recent times, may be more inclined than ever to echo. I remember a few years ago finding a history book that seemed to illustrate that, namely Tim Blanning’s ‘The Romantic Revolution’. Somehow, it felt like it managed to capture the spirit of the age and also managed to make the nineteenth century “seem cool” again. Not in a Woody Allen ‘Midnight in Paris’ nostalgia sense, but in a historical sense. If that idea arouses curiosity, Blanning’s text is perhaps worth a glance. All I can remember about the book now is that the historian in me seemed to recognise in it that, somehow or another, it really is “a good book”. Or, in other words, it is a book that somehow may allow one to acquire a distant-reading sense of an age without necessarily relying on a computer with blinking lights to achieve this. If history books can still achieve that somehow, I will raise a glass to that, even if my computer will no doubt tell me that the romantic revolution is but a romantic illusion. Ibsen may have said that all humans need their illusions, or delusions, but I still sympathise with that girl and her stuffed parrot as someone who intrinsically had their heart in the right place. Yes, I know, one of these days I will have to invest in one of those horseless carriages. And, truth be told, Flaubert was a bit of a shit head, no matter how entertaining his letters can still be to writers, in a truly confessional sense. And if Maupassant sometimes found the ‘mot juste’, it still may not necessarily have been the right one. But then again neither shall we.

What’s for bRex(it)fast?

Anyone used to studying nineteenth-century Ireland will be familiar with how issues of church-state relations frequently arose in that era, perhaps a little too often. More surprising might be where and how such an idea might surface “today”.

That is not a debate that I pay attention to, although one can see in the distance how Irish writers on the theme often identify not with the American republican system, as one might expect (considering how the Irish constitution came to be written), but with a British civitas one, purely because of a perception of how either system can end up affecting their pockets. So much for altruism. Last summer, however, an old Irish legal historian said to me that he viewed the current negotiations between Britain and the European Union as being akin to “24 Hen 8 c 12, Act II” and, with his own educational background, he evidently quite sympathised with that idea. What a peculiar idea that might seem, although in one of the more interesting pieces of news I heard recently—a video of a lecture by a former Irish ambassador—it was perceptible how a similar dynamic was perceived to be affecting life in Ulster increasingly today. People may be familiar with the broad ethos of British public service broadcasting worldwide and various British universities, although as I think the late Garret Fitzgerald used to say the real nature and parameters of English nationalism is nevertheless perhaps quite obscure to many people.

My breakfast each day usually consists of a cup of tea and an orange and so I consciously avoid a diet of news on that perpetual media story that sounds like a breakfast, but isn’t really. But, then again, here I am thinking about writing an international relations history, with my head currently wrapped up in Irish newspapers from in-or-about 1945, so is it a case of “perhaps I better pay some attention to this one after all?” Being a historian, I want to avoid contemporary issues but, in attempting to map out a plan for future reading, it is clear that if I ultimately decide, or I am able to, or ever get to the stage of, writing about issues as recent as Ireland joining the EU in 1994, a potentially good source of “free literature” (a valuable asset for one with no budget like me) can be found here. That is a source of contemporary literature the existence of which I have only discovered recently. Perhaps it is familiar to many. But if it is not, it may make for some interesting breakfast reading, of one kind or another. I just thought I’d share that (before I go to put the kettle on again)

History For Kids

An Irishman who teaches British history at third level abroad said to me a while ago that “its very important that there is a curriculum and that historians stick to it”. That struck me as a rather unimaginative comment. But perhaps it is a relevant one. In the news of late, it is reported that history will cease to be a compulsory subject in Irish schools from this autumn and various people have complained about that, with even some national newspapers, which claim to have no agenda and to deal only in facts, arguing that a lack of designed history curriculum in schools will only increase the amount of “fake news” in the world.

I find it a little difficult to identify with these debates. I recall studying history in Ireland up to PhD level without ever being exposed, as part of my studies, to theories of education, such as Dewey’s models of learning outcomes and the like. These are now the best part of a century old and revolve largely around the valid question if there is value in knowledge if it cannot be applied to life circumstances. Just how essential is historical knowledge? Do people need to have a history curriculum shaping their worldview? Or should both the study and awareness of history be something far more flexible than any designed curriculum could possibly reflect, let alone shape?

I have had unhappy experiences in the past seeking work as a history teacher of any kind, as a PhD disqualifies one from teaching in schools and in colleges the framework for interpreting history—in effect, the “curriculum”—is not necessarily as flexible or as imaginative as one might think, or expect, in institutes of higher education. I can recall sitting across an interview desk being faced with a question like “why is John Redmond relevant today?”—a question that, bizarrely, even living Irish statesmen are sometimes asked and speak about on Irish national media (imagine current British or French statesman being asked and actually speaking as if Disraeli or Poincaré are relevant today?)—and, all of a sudden, the interview quickly takes on a vibe akin to that old song “where-did-you-get-that-blank-expression-on-your-face?” My answer does not seem to register with the interviewers at all because I think of Redmond as a man of his own time. If Redmond decided to retire and someone asked him post-retirement “why are you relevant today?” I am pretty sure he would have looked at his questioner with a blank face as if to say “have you got a screw loose?” How, then, did the idea of Redmond not as a man of his own time become so clearly a part of a history curriculum? You tell me.

It is common sense that if history is to be read chronologically then it should be read forwards rather than backwards, or else people’s sense of both life and history would become very queer indeed. Generations exist, but how can the historical imagination reflect that? And if empathy is the basis for understanding, how can one’s approach to history reflect that? Asking questions like “how would life, or the world, have appeared to a Scottish fisherman in 1750, an American munitions worker in 1918, a Persian merchant in 1460, a Greek shepherd in 240 or an Irish hunter in 1620?” are unlikely to inspire essay length answers, but they would force one to attempt to step into another’s shoes and consider just how many vantage points on life may exist across time or, indeed, geography. That is an education, surely. By contrast, “the great men of history who determined the course of international relations” narratives that are the bread-and-butter of old school-history textbooks may seem akin to buying into a “the man who sold the world” idea: a narrative of someone seeking world domination, like Mephistopheles himself, through controlling or manipulating how people think. Is that an education?

Historical narratives of any kind cannot exist without a historical imagination and it seems to me that the broader one’s historical imagination is, the broader one’s sense of history will be. In my experience, people who have never done a history course often have a broader or more mature sense of history, purely out of their own inquisitiveness about life, than those who have for the simple reason that there is no curriculum in place to restrict their historical imaginations. They are not thinking within predetermined boxes. A while ago, I saw an internet commentary about a 1960s American TV show that was re-run on Irish TV during the 1980s, The Time Tunnel, which suggested that the show actually had some merits on an educational level for kids, because every week the two stars were being thrown into a different historical epoch against their own will and literally had to adapt, hitting the ground running, in a sense, within minutes. I remember liking the programme myself as a kid, although seeing parts of it again as an adult was bemusing because a conceit within the show was that wherever the guys were transported was almost always into some historical catastrophe or battle. For instance, if they landed onto a historical ship, it would not be any historical ship: it would have to be the Titanic. If they landed in the middle of a pretty rural village in France, it would not be at harvest time or before a happy village fair: it would be within 24 hours of the launch of D-Day…and so on. As undisciplined as it may seem, I imagine some of the best illustrations of “history for kids” could be an alternative kind of time tunnel: here you are in the town’s school in 2018, but are you aware that the school and the street outside looked like this in 1962 or 1948? It is simple explorations like that bring people’s historical imaginations to life, for any or all age groups, in a manner that literally does not stop, from cradle to grave. By contrast, if historical educations, or public history agendas and the like, have people walking down the street literally with World Wars on their mind, then one might be tempted to judge that the absence of compulsory history educations in schools may actually end up being only a good thing and may even up increasing, indirectly, the level of public interest in history over time by making it the humanist study it is truly supposed to be. From a Dewey point of view, I suspect that that is why departments of education across most countries in the world are starting to reconsider the value of history…and, well, all I can say as a historian is “that’s ok with me”