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Michael Marking


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     (Sometimes it's difficult to know where history stops and government and politics begin. My personal definition is that an event moves into history when it becomes too late to do much about it.)

     While I enjoy what might be called ordinary or conventional history, it's most interesting to explore history with certain special characteristics. This doesn't mean that ordinary history doesn't have these features, but rather that they're usually missing. I guess another way of putting it, these are the qualities that make for good history.

     One of these is an exploration of what life was like for ordinary people, or maybe for some special class of people. Usually, we read about the lives of royalty or of the rich and powerful. What about the rest? What was life like, not only for the commoners, but also for soldiers or farmers or slaves?

     Another thing usually missing from history books is analysis from multiple points of view. Some writers do a little of this, but it's not that common. For example, many of us were taught that the English Civil War was about religion and also about power struggle between two poorly-described groups, with a brief mention of a few other factors thrown in to make it sound balanced. But I've seen interesting analyses based on class structure, on economics, and on other factors. It takes more than one perspective to see the whole situation.

     Some of the best reading comes from historians willing to go against the grain completely. For example, Gavin Menzies has written a couple of books, well researched, that assert that a Chinese fleet from the early Ming Dynasty travelled around the world, and later there was a voyage to Italy which, though it didn't make it into the usual record, had a significant impact on European history. He concludes, among other things, that Colombus had use of a chart based on Chinese charts, and posits the route by which the Chinese information made it to Columbus by way of Columbus' brother. Menzies was in the British Navy, and even goes to great length to explain how the Chinese fleet would have been able to navigate given the technology available to it. It's a radical set of claims, but well documented and supported. I've read some of his detractors, who dispute his theories, but most of them attack only small portions of what he said, and usually misquote or misunderstand him. Good stuff!

     Another genre of history that's thought provoking and fun to read comes from new perspectives on events. For example, Charles C Mann has written a pair of books, 1491 and 1493, looking at the Americas before the arrival of Columbus, and at the impact of his discoveries on both the New World and the Old World. It includes a lot of material from archaeology that wasn't known until the 20th Century, and which hasn't yet made it into many history books. After reading them, you'll never look at the Indians the same way.

     There's another category we might call “quasi-history”. I'm going to add two cases, I only learned about them in 2016, but the debate has been going on for years and I just didn't know it. As it turns out, there's no contemporaneous historical evidence that either Jesus or Mohammed actually existed. We have no evidence of either of them from the times they supposedly lived: no one at the time wrote about them, there are no tangible artefacts, no records from them or from anyone then who even mentioned them. All we have a writings and artefacts which showed up a considerable time later, depending on oral tradition. That doesn't mean they didn't live and walk the earth, but a lot of historians, it seems, put them into the category of myth, and don't believe they even existed. Wow. As you might imagine, there's a lot of heated discussion and argument about these things. I'm reading some books on this topic, and plan to review them when I've finished.

     Finally, there are those books which delve into material which has been overlooked, forgotten, suppressed, or sometimes just dropped into the memory hole. Often, this is recent history, and might just as easily be classified under politics or government. It doesn't have to be forbidden or disputed material to be interesting. For example, the imperial ventures of the United States beginning especially after the Civil War are well documented but often neglected, as are details of the Russian Revolution. Usually, the school books give just a few paragraphs to the Mongol empire, or to pre-colonial Africa — or, for that matter, to colonial Africa — but these topics are worth the lengthier treatment that some writers give to them.

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