We’re all familiar with textbook-style history, which hits the main points of major historical events along a linear timeline according to the current accepted interpretation. Usually textbook-style history is light on controversial elements, and does not often go into the debates and social upheaval that surrounded major movements and changes. It usually just hits on major points and dates. Furthermore, mainstream/ textbook-style history often looks at history from the perspective of the socially powerful and/or victors, which by default tends to ignore the everyday stories and experience.
In large part, this has to do with a concept called “historical lens.” Consider a specific date — for instance, September 11, 2001. Now consider all the people who experienced that day in some form or other — observing, experiencing, participating. Now consider who among those people were able to write down what they observed. Now consider which of those writings were preserved/ distributed.
For September 11, that’s actually a fairly large slice of data — but it’s also during a time and place when the majority of the population knows how to read and write and has access to the internet. If you move the date back even a few decades, the experiences that were recorded, were preserved, and are distributed are much fewer in number. Those that do survive tend to be accounts considered “important,” such as accounts by heads of state or famous people. The farther back in time you go, the more constricted the pool of available data becomes, and the more likely it is that such data is predominantly accounts from the wealthy and powerful.
Revisionist history is the search for the alternative, everyday narratives of underrepresented persons. It is drawn from such disparate sources as contemporary letters, journals, interviews, newspaper articles, household ledgers, slave receipts, graveyard records, census data, ship manifests, photographs, and so on and so forth. It is the patchwork collection of the detritus of everyday life that has survived — often unintentionally — alongside the preservation of master narratives. It is the unexpected window into the ordinary person’s experience of the past.
I’m not particularly fond of biographies or autobiographies, yet I find myself often reading them. I have noticed certain trends in my choices of biography and autobiography:
- When I read contemporary biographies, I prefer accounts written by journalist or authors who have been lauded for their honesty, non-biased writing style, and incisive interviewing style. The autobiography is honest and explores both good and bad about the subject, but does not descend into tawdry gossip or speculation.
- When I read historical biographies, I prefer authors who use a wide variety of accredited sources, utilize footnotes, and explore the subjects life (again) in a non-biased manner. Bonus points if they approach the subject from a non-traditional point of view — for instance, instead of an autobiography of King Henry VII as the man-whoring, wife-killing, pope-defying ruler of England, it was an autobiography of King Henry the VII and how a new potential explanation for his undiagnosed illness explained his inability to father a son, and the consequences that had on a nation.
- When I read autobiographies — contemporary or historical — it’s usually due to a biography that I have either read or plan to read on the subject. I want to get a feel for the subject’s personality and voice, as well as how they chose to present their lives to posterity.
- However, I prefer autobiographies that fall under creative/ literary non-fiction, such as Kate Redfield’s An Unquiet Mind. I take everything in them with a grain of salt, but enjoy the new perspectives and interpretations of the world
Social & Applied Sciences
This is a pretty generic heading, but I felt it fit well for a certain style of writing that I particularly enjoy. Basically, an author choose a specific topic, idea, or concept and explores it in depth. Examples would be:
- “Stiff,” by Mary Roach, where she examined human cadavers. Specifically, she looked at ritual, mourning, and disposal techniques in the past and present, as well as potential future methods currently under development/ discussion.
- “Pink Brain, Blue Brain,” by Lise Eliot, where she examines the gender stereotypes according to social construction and the currently available scientific documentation of verifiable male/ female differences in neurology and physiology.
- “Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche,” by Ethan Watters. This is an in-depth look at views and recording of mental illness throughout history and different cultures, the different ways various mental illnesses have presented in different cultures/ times in history, and how the current American/ Western model for diagnosing and treating mental illness is being exported to non-American cultures (often to their detriment). He also examines the strengths and flaws inherent in the modern Westernized perception and treatment of mental illness.
Legal Theory and Criticism
This is a fairly new interest, brought about because of the course I’m currently taking in Public Law & Policy, with a specific concentration on Labor Law, Discrimination Law, and Immigration Law. These books are sort of a combination of revisionist history and social sciences, but with a strong dash of legal theory, statistics, and the values and assumptions of the courts who handed down decisions that would have repercussions on legal decisions, public policy, and human rights for decades to follow. It’s a really fascinating and interesting area.