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 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.)
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.