Jordan Jachim is a friend and fellow bibliophile our family meets occasionally at the homeschool conference circuit. He's a lover of history and I always enjoy looking through the posters he sells that give facts about various historical time periods. I asked him if he'd be willing to share some thoughts on history and books with my readers, and the following post is a spectacular look at why modern readers should care about what happens in the past. If you're a modern reader who wants to know why we should still read classic and historical authors, this will give you every reason you need. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
Every reader is a student of history, perhaps even without knowing it. Any time you pick up and read a book, you are reading something that was written in the past. Even this post was written in the past. Admittedly, it is not the very distant past, but it was still written a few weeks before being published. The study of the past is known as history, but many people believe that history is boring. They have a mental picture of history that looks something like this:
In 1954, the Soviet Union absorbed the small Eastern European country of Czechoslovakia into the USSR. The Soviets quickly rounded up “dissenters” and harshly punished them with labor in the uranium mines. No one was safe, and none of the accused had any hope of a fair trial. Escape from the country was nearly impossible because armed guards, electric fences, and minefields barred the way between Communist Czechoslovakia and free Austria.
The paragraph above is factually accurate but fairly dry. I read one history book where the author had a knack for making even the most exciting events (Hannibal crossing the Alps, for example) seem boring. But what if history is presented more like this:
The refugee peered cautiously above the hill. The Communists wanted to punish him, even though he had done nothing wrong. There was no hope of a fair trial and his only hope of safety was crossing the border from Communist Czechoslovakia into free Austria. As he looked down the hill and into the village, he saw, to his horror, two Communist soldiers loitering in the street. Each held the leash of a large German Shepherd dog. If those soldiers and their dogs caught him, he would be shot or forced to work the rest of his life in the uranium mines. But the wind was blowing from the dogs towards the refugee. This meant that the dogs could not smell him. For ten minutes the soldiers talked and then they walked away. Nervously, the refugee crossed the street—but no one saw him. In a few days, he was safely on Austrian territory. Freedom!
This paragraph is much better. We sympathize with the refugee and rejoice when the wind keeps him safe from the dogs. Perhaps this paragraph even makes you want to learn more about Czechoslovakia under Communist oppression. Well-told history lets us sympathize with the people in it. Or, the same concept can be put another way: Doubtless in reading, you have read very descriptive books, where you can understand why the characters react the way they do. But also you have read some books where the characters are flat and stale. One type of book remains in your mind; the other is quickly forgotten. So it is with writing history. History itself is not boring, but people can present it in interesting or boring ways.
Now that we have seen that history is not boring, it is time to tackle the title question: Why should modern readers care about history?
One reason that you should care about history is that it can be every bit as exciting as a good work of fiction. The paragraph about the Czech refugee above is a true story. Many other stories like this lurk in the pages of history. The best place to find true stories of people in history is in writings that were written at the time an event happened. These are called “primary sources”. Newspapers of an era and memoirs by eyewitnesses both fall into this category. One example of an interesting story hidden in a memoir is found in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s autobiography Crusade in Europe. In it, Eisenhower tells the story of two kind GIs who discovered a vault of Nazi treasure as a result of their kindness.
A second benefit of studying history is that it enriches one’s reading. Oftentimes, a historical event or person is referenced in a novel. An easy example of this can be found in Sherlock Holmes’ adventure “The Noble Bachelor”. When discussing the separation between England and America, Mr. Holmes blames “the folly of a king and the blundering of a Minister.” With a knowledge of history, it can be seen that Holmes is talking about the American Revolution, and is blaming King George III and then Prime Minister Lord North for losing their American colonies.
A more interesting example of historical knowledge enriching reading is found in chapter 14 of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel David Balfour (set in 1751). “One incident of my imprisonment is made memorable by a consequence it had long after. There was a warship at this time stationed in the Firth, the Seahorse, Captain Palliser.”
I assumed that this Captain was a fictional character, until years later, when I came across this passage in another book. “It had taken Norwich a little more than one month to deliver General Braddock to American shores. She arrived at the Virginia Capes on February 19, 1755, and sailed on to Hampton on February 20, followed by Centurion a few days later. Palliser’s Sea Horse and other transports began arriving at the Virginia Capes on March 8, 1755.” (quotation from pg. 69 of Braddock’s Defeat by David Preston). The same Captain Palliser who appears in David Balfour also sailed to North America during the French & Indian War.
Thirdly, history allows us to learn from the wisdom of others. I cannot physically ask C. S. Lewis about Christian doctrine because he died in 1966. But I can learn from him through his writings. As the great scientist Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I see farther than others, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.” History is an excellent way to stand on giants’ shoulders and see farther. No one could hope to learn everything that C. S. Lewis (for example) learned, but through his books, we benefit from his knowledge.
Closely related to the previous point, history helps us avoid mistakes others have made in the past. There is an old saying “Those who do not know the past are condemned to repeat it.” Consider the extract from a longer poem below:
“That by some accidental clatter,
Of pristine, crude, chaotic matter,
(But how, an Atheist only knows)
This beauteous universe arose.
That there is nothing like reality
In future life and immortality;
When death our thread of life shall sever,
We go to rest, and sleep forever.”
This certainly sounds like today’s atheists and evolutionists who claim that an accident created the universe and that there is no life after death. But the poem was originally written in 1805! Entitled Democracy Unveiled, Or, Tyranny Stripped of the Garb of Patriotism, it was written by a United States citizen who was concerned with the anarchy of the French Revolution. In the poem, he defends the principles of liberty, law, and love for God, concluding by observing: “For, ruled by men and not by law/ Your rights will not be worth a straw.” We are seeing this today, as many politicians believe that they can redefine laws (both God’s laws and our Constitution) to suit themselves.
But most importantly, history is the story of how God has been working here on earth. Remember that story about the Czech refugee? Who was guiding the wind that it should have blown so that the dogs could not smell him? Who but God? This is a very rewarding part of studying history: being able to see how God has worked. Psalm 73 is a good example of this. In this psalm (which is more like a story than a song), the psalmist laments the fact that the wicked prosper while those who love God struggle. Then he learns that the prosperity of the wicked is only fleeting, while God has promised to guide him and, when he dies, receive him to glory. The psalmist was able to see how God has worked through history, and that gave him confidence. Psalm 73 ends with the psalmist declaring “But it is good for me to draw near to God: I have put my trust in the Lord GOD, that I may declare all thy works.”
Seeing how God worked in history also gives us confidence as we go through life. I have struggled through some very difficult times in my life and I am certain that you have as well. But God has promised (in Isaiah 41:10) that He will strengthen and help us. History proves this over and over. Elijah was despondent in the wilderness, but God strengthened him. Jeremiah was thrown into an old cistern to die, but God brought Ebed-Melech to help him. After being kidnapped and sold as a slave, God strengthened Saint Patrick to return to Ireland and bring Christianity to his kidnappers.
Should modern readers care about history? Most assuredly. History is an engaging story of real events, happening to real people. A knowledge of it enriches reading other books. History lets us learn from great men and women of the past, and it helps us avoid mistakes others have made. But most importantly, history teaches us about God and gives us confidence to face the future. “Seeing therefore that we have so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1)
If you enjoyed Jordan's post today, be sure to check out his fantastic historical posters and paper soldiers at Through All Ages LLC. We have some of them, and the quality of his work is impressive. They would make great resources for school, writers, or history geeks!