An essay on history and the vanity of history books

Professors of history and history’s acolytes have an inflated opinion of their subject. They bathe in a vast knowledge which ranges from extreme fact to extreme fact. They know the littlest tinniest detail of their subject and when asked to elaborate further, they go supernova on you!

Bookshops are littered with history books on every conceivable subject basking in the warm rays of their own self-importance. These books tend to be big hefty tomes with extensive bibliographies and appendices and are swarming with quotes like a dog shit in the summer heat is swarming with flies.

I have read many of these ‘kind’ of history books and have always come away with a confused head, headache – and a week later I am left with only a distant weak impression of the book. “Where has the book gone?” I ask myself. I read it whole, and now nothing remains? Surely there must have been something I took away from that tough-read a week a go?

No. it would have been better to have simply read a short review or synopsis and the information I would be left with would still be the same.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about something else. I want to talk about history as a legitimate subject, and whether as a subject it can tell us, nay teach us, something universal – something certain – something true that applies universally.

What is history? One damned thing after another? What is the point of history? Can we learn something from it? If we re-ran history again – I know for certain that the movie we’d see would be different to the history movie we are familiar with. But how different?

Would any of it be recognizable even?

Are their rich tough seams of history that would always be present even if you re-ran the tape say ten times or a hundred times?

And what does this say about the historical events which; if you re-ran the tape once, would disappear forever – what does this say about them? That they were chance events and just happened? And what does this say about the history books that have been written about these chance events that just happened to happen once, in the many history re-run scenario?

Imagine you’ve written a book about the battle of Waterloo and have analysed everything, all the events, the weather, the morale of the troops etc etc – and in the end you have arrived at a conclusion that attempts to bring the disparate parts together and explain why the battle went in the direction it did. But what if the battle was re-run again and it went differently? What does this say about your conclusions – and more importantly, what does it say about the whole history book business?!

And, more importantly, is there anything to learn from these history books?

As far as I’m concerned it’s those rich tough seams – those bits of history that would not change even if you re-ran history 10 times, – it is these ‘rich tough seams’ that are the most interesting and the most challenging to discover and the most enlightening to us. For they hint at the universal:

It is these never changing sands in a tableaux of shifting scenes that present to my mind the inkling of the presence of something universal. Something that transcends time. Something beyond history as merely ‘one damned thing after another’. Something forever…

Everything is linked to everything else. And I can imagine myself writing a history book on the Greek wars of antiquity, the Holy Roman Empire, the Islamic conquest of Southern Europe, or the first and second World Wars. But would these events have happened in a history re-run?

Probably not. Every event is connected to others by the slenderest of threads and these threads are so slender that in an alternative history the links would be different because a lot of the time chance plays a big part in everything. Re-run it all again and chance would muddle things up so much, that the slender threads would be connected differently and the outcomes different too.

Where would we be today? How different would the world be? Would slavery still be present? How different would the economic, race, demographic, religious and social map of the world be?

Ah! Such questions on a Saturday morning! Should I not be out at the cinema watching Iron Man III or something?

I love my self. I love my mind. Together we have some of the most fantastic conversations! I discuss things with myself I had no idea I could discuss! It’s beautiful don’t you think? To surprise even yourself!

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