The history boy

It is a little hard for me to believe it was 30 years ago that I was a history major at the University of Minnesota. It’s also amazing–and right–that a four-year liberal arts undergraduate degree doesn’t make most students an expert in anything. If my degree gave me the right to any claim about proficiency, it would be in the history of Edwardian England, but even that would be a stretch. It certainly is what I was most interested in. And yes, I wrote my senior paper on Sir Edward Elgar, Bt. OM, GCVO, so there is that.

But really those four years were about learning how to think and write. Language, humanities, geography, logic, music, art history. (Even a bit of physical education. Our Welsh teaching assistant taught the eight of us in the class a highly modified version of indoor cricket.) Even within my major, my learning was broad rather than deep. England, Spain, U.S., Europe (broadly), European intellectual history, ancient Greece and Rome, China, WWII, etc. And, in a bit of foreshadowing for my senior paper on Elgar, I wrote a paper for my Scandinavian history class about the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.

This degree didn’t directly set me up to get a job, but it did give me a foundation that has proven extremely helpful throughout my career. It’s also why I go out of my way to interview and hire liberal arts majors even though I work in an engineering-related field. And I guess I am forgetting about the time that I was literally paid for 18 months to be a historian, when my job as an urban planner turned into a gig to research and write the history of St. Elizabeths [sic] Hospital.

I stumbled across this the other day. Seems appropriate for my mood.

I think if I could quit my day job and do anything, I would probably come up with a history research project or two. Something that allowed me to spend my days rooting around in archives and libraries.

All of this is prelude to the fact that I bought The English and Their History by Robert Tombs at the original Daunt Books on a trip to London in December 2019 (the Before Times) and started reading it a few weeks ago. As much as I know about England, I know very little about what happened before 1066. Also, as a student of history with an interest in the 19th century, I spent very little time thinking about how historians know what they know about ancient civilizations. I may know my way around a Victorian primary source, but when it comes to the Angles and the Saxons it’s all a bit murky to me how we know what we know.

It soon became apparent in my reading that I had far more questions than a survey history could possibly supply. As I combed through the bibliography at the back of the book I hatched an idea to return to school. Not for real. I wish. But why not break this survey down and go in-depth? In general, my free-time fixation on fiction and my efforts to keep up with my Italian, make non-fiction seem almost like forbidden fruit. Do I really have time to add another class, as it were? Maybe I could turn the TV on a little less, and unglue myself from social media.

I would have to set aside the competition I have with myself to see how fast I can hack my way through my fiction TBR. But maybe I could also adjust my expectations in that regard. Who am I racing after all? (Okay we all know that I’m racing death, just like every other reader.) But then the idea to go back to school took root and I decided that although I can’t really go back to school, I could create my own curriculum. So I have decided to break it up and read three to four in-depth sources for each chapter in the Tombs book.

With Tombs’s bibliography in hand, off I went to the internet to place an order with my local indie. I couldn’t be more excited. I am still not devoting the time to it that I would like to, but I am enjoying the exploration immensely. I’m particularly taken at the moment with Britain Begins by archaeologist Barry Cunliffe. This is next level fascinating and makes me wonder what the hell I have been doing for the past 30 years when I could have been plumbing the depths of the historical record on any number of fronts.

None of these books will make me an expert. For anyone who has spent time in academe, many, if not most fields these days write more and more about less and less. Every page I read could be a subject of study in itself. But time is not endless, so that isn’t going to happen. I can, however, have a fun time following whatever bread crumbs I want. I’m already noticing my eye straying toward the Continent to flesh out the Roman Empire and set the context for what happened in England. But that is going to have to wait until I get through Britain Begins. I have lots of barrows and henges to read about.

The process has also reinforced my most noble interest in accumulating books. As I was reading Bede, I remembered that I had found an atlas when I was fossicking around in a used bookstore in The Hague last year that might help in my instruction. At the time I bought it because I liked it as an object and had a general interest in having some atlases that showed changes in Europe over time. The internet is not good for everything, after all. (Seriously, if you like used bookstores, click on the link.)

Much to my delight I had this atlas in my library so I could put Bede’s location and world into context. If you zoom in you can see Jarrow and Wearmouth on the northeast coast of the England.

Doing this kind of reading/studying even has me wanting to take tests and write papers again. It has me thinking about my study habits and general incuriosity when I was 19. It has me wanting to visit the great libraries and archives of England to see source material. Now if I could just turn the TV off.

20 thoughts on “The history boy

  1. Susan M Scanlon December 5, 2020 / 11:47 am

    I’m so impressed! It’s not often you hear from people who are so deeply curious about the world. Keep us posted, please.


    • Thomas December 18, 2020 / 11:01 am

      It’s kind of weird because I could have been doing this for decades. Don’t know why I waited this long.


  2. BookerTalk December 5, 2020 / 1:04 pm

    There was a blogger (now no longer blogging) who used to set herself a project each year to go in depth on various topics of interest. It struck me as a superb idea – much more satisfying to focus on one thing rather than my approach which is very scatter gun.

    Your reading material looks rather daunting though, especially the Bede..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thomas December 18, 2020 / 11:02 am

      I love that idea. I need to put mine on a schedule. I enjoy it, but forget to carve out time for it.


      • BookerTalk December 18, 2020 / 1:29 pm

        My problem exactly – and then the months pass and I realise I’ve read nothing


    • Sarah Faragher December 19, 2020 / 9:13 am

      To help me make it through the Maine winter each year I usually choose a winter reading project, and delve into it for two or three months. Either an author or a particular subject. One year it was Greek and Roman literature, another year Mark Twain, another Virginia Woolf, etc. Sometimes it’s really nice not to have to decide what to read each evening, because there’s your stack of books, waiting for you.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. RareBird (Laura) December 5, 2020 / 1:53 pm

    I always love the way you nerd out on things. Who is the publisher for the atlas? I nerd out on old atlases.


    • Thomas December 18, 2020 / 11:06 am

      Elsevier – Amsterdam/Cleaver-Hume Press – London


    • Thomas December 18, 2020 / 11:14 am

      I don’t know, I feel like I am better archive user than archivist. The archivist I dealt with at the National Archives was always so unpleasant. I was there everyday for six months and he was never once friendly. Made me think her really hated his job.


      • Jenny Colvin (@readingenvy) December 18, 2020 / 12:43 pm

        There is a movement in Archives to be more outreach-focused and that’s pretty exciting. All the academic archivists I’ve worked with have been like that and have done some cool stuff from bringing environmental scientists into humanities research and leading the charge to investigate the university’s history with slavery.


  4. Jonathan December 6, 2020 / 10:33 am

    I’ve noticed that I’ve been reading much more fiction than non-fiction these days. And when I was studying I thought it’d be great to investigate further when I had the time – but I haven’t.

    So good luck with your studies. BTW I have an old historical atlas from when I was at school – I still find it useful when I, say, want to know what the Holy Roman Empire looked like in the 18th C – it happens more than you’d think.


    • Thomas December 18, 2020 / 11:17 am

      I started this endeavor wishing I had kept all my textbooks from college. Those kinds of resources are hard to identify when you are outside academia. Google certainly doesn’t help. One needs a good bibliography, but even then one is shooting a bit in the dark in terms of content and quality.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Liz Dexter December 6, 2020 / 1:48 pm

    Wonderful, I loved reading about this. Barry Cunliffe is a great writer, and I wish you very well with your project.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Sarah Faragher December 6, 2020 / 2:40 pm

    Sounds great, Thomas. Maybe you could take classes at the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, and learn more about archive work… the course list is something else (in a good way).

    And, I wonder if you ever watched the British archaeology tv show ‘Time Team’ – my husband Ryan and I watched most of the 20 seasons, and rewatched many favorite episodes again, on youtube. Seems at first like history-lite, with Tony Robinson (from Blackadder etc) as the host, but he’s the everyperson, and the archaeologists are actual professionals in their fields. Loved it, learned a lot.


    • Thomas December 18, 2020 / 11:18 am

      Sarah, such a good tip on the Time Team. John and I are loving it.


      • Sarah Faragher December 19, 2020 / 9:04 am

        Yessss! We found that the more episodes you watch the better it gets, because you get to know all the archaeologists’ and historians’ personalities. Seeing so much of the British countryside also a huge plus.


  7. Michelle Ann December 8, 2020 / 12:58 pm

    What an interesting project. One thing I realised at work is that there are very few sources over twenty years old on the internet, and many are behind paywalls, so we’re still going to need books for a very long time.


    • Thomas December 18, 2020 / 11:19 am

      I miss being able to poking around a research library.


  8. Emily December 18, 2020 / 10:22 pm

    Good luck on your project! One thing that I find liberating about non-fiction and that you might as well, is that I can treat as research, reading in the order that I want the chapters that interest me most.


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