Saturday, November 5, 2016


I'm still mainlining history. It has steamrollered from something I picked up to make the long hours at work go a little quicker (listening to podcasts) to near obsession. I find myself going past the fiction section in both the book store and the used DVD's to find the documentaries and (perhaps increasingly) the historical epics.

I'm currently reading through an alternate-history take on events in the Byzantine Empire under Justinian (aka the Belisarius series), and I'm watching the edutainment program Young Indiana Jones. 

The latter has the usual edutainment conceit of every famous person you probably heard of in school showing up to take a moment to interact with the protagonist. You can see it coming; heck, I didn't even realize it was that kind of a series when a masked man in Arab dress rode up to the Giza complex on a bicycle (towards our stranded heroes) and I realized immediately this was going to be T.E. Lawrence. And I have to say that the show plays fast and loose with dates and ages and assorted other facts (Norman Rockwell meeting Picasso and Degas at the Lapin Agile in 1908? Really?)

But it is a fun show and it is always fun to see some of these places and people and cultures brought to life. The great thing about an interest in history is you recognize more and more of the references and the quotes, the places and the people.

The Belisarius series is also a whirlwind tour through places -- and through history. Belisarius comes from a culture that is obsessed with the classics. The Byzantine royalty are very familiar with the classics and, like the Roman Empire they consider themselves a continuation of, venerate the Greek writers of antiquity. They are also a trading empire. Many of the other cultures interacted with have a similar literary bent and long memories for their own histories -- the Persians, for but one example.

And many of the characters are military men, and it is still true that literate military men know the campaigns of Alexander and Xenophon as well as they know those of their contemporaries. (Plus it doesn't hurt that the alternate part of the alternate history is a future power struggle that has sent two emissaries back to support opposing sides -- and bring them up to date on histories that world has yet to experience).

And, yeah, I finally had to pick up an atlas and start really trying to nail things down in at least the region of the Mediterranean. I happened to find a rather nice "Atlas of the Ancient World" edition of National Geographic just as I was feeling the cartographic pinch. But truth be told, I've been using Google Maps to get a rough grounding in where things are in relation to each other.

I suppose I have always had a background fascination for the stuff. I think if you boil down the question of why I never threw myself into it like this before, it would be because of how I learn (which is a poor mismatch to how some subjects have traditionally been taught). I don't learn from the bottom up. I learn by putting together a basic structure, then filling in the details. It is like a holographic data structure, not like defined sectors on a disk that can simply be filled up one by one. I quite literally can not remember (and can not associate) facts before I have this overarching structure to plug them into.

The traditional presentation of history is long on the facts and short on the analysis. And nearly missing on the synopsis. So you are confronted with having to memorize tables of names of kings and dates of conquest, with no real sense of the "why" of anything.

The presentation of history is changing, I think. Although the more analytical stuff has always been out there. Think of Henri Pirenne's great History of Europe, which I am convinced is thanks to the Germans separating him from his books, forcing him to write the "real" stuff of history and go back later to fill in the dates. Or oral histories, which place you in a place and let you figure out what it all means the way the person living that life would have.

Then there was a time when I was working at Fort Mason Center, taking lunch under the bows of a W.W.II Liberty Ship and reading a book from the nearby Friends of the Library sale. It only seemed natural to read naval histories of the war, and given the theater the men, women, and materials that came through that base were being shipped to, the Pacific Campaigns.

Which I rapidly discovered were a heck of a lot more interesting from the Japanese point of view, which led me into reading a lot of history and ethnographies and other Japanese studies. I sort of walked backwards to an eventual appreciation of anime and samurai films; unlike most of my contemporaries, those were not my starting point.

Somewhere around there I got a fascination for female aviation pioneers, reading a bunch of biographies of same. And this was a better way to grasp history; from the ground, in a narrow field both in space and in time. The problem being of course you need a lot of these tiny, detailed chunks in order to build into an understanding of the grand flows.

When I started working on an SG1/Tomb Raider fanfic, it was planned to go no more than 20,000 words and be all about the humor in two adherents of the Indiana Jones school of archaeology (aka Daniel Jackson and Lara Croft) getting into an argument about the best way to loot then blow up an ancient temple.

It didn't work out that way. To figure out the plot I really needed to brush up on my history of the ancient world. And for some reason, this time it "stuck." I was able to push through that period of not being able to make sense of anything, hammer over and over at the various periods and kingdoms until it finally started to take form.

It isn't a breakthrough to all of history. I am still in fear of the 18th and 19th centuries -- heck, I'm not even looking forward to trying to get a grip on Rome (much less feudal Europe). But I am finding it a little easier.

So even though my podcast resources have temporarily run dry on my period of initial interest, I'm quite happy to listen to forty five minutes on the Siege of Munster or the Tea Trade.

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