Friday, October 1, 2021

Why Is History So Boring?: An Open Letter To My Middle School Self, To Be Read Beneath the Desk During Social Studies Class

1. Read one random sentence of a history textbook and pick out the most mind-numbing phrases.

I'll go first.

"In 1958, Heinrich Berlin published a detailed analysis of inscriptions on the sarcophagus lid from the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque, identifying the ten figures on the sides of the sarcophagus by their name and glyphs."

Most mind-numbing phrases: "In 1958", followed by "Heinrich Berlin", followed by "Temple of the Inscription at Palenque".

2. Write down what exactly happens in your head as you read each phrase. How do you feel? What do you imagine? What kinds of thoughts pop up?

Here's mine.

"In 1958": Irritation, dismissal, skipping-over.

Whoah, slow down. What happens right before the irritation? How did you know to be irritated?

When I read something, I try to let it into my head and make sense of it. But when I read "1958"... It's like when I'm using my hands to prepare a spot in the garden for a new rosemary plant, and I reach down expecting to grab a handful of soft loamy soil and move it out of the way, but instead there's a buried rock that's bigger than my head. I run into "1958" really hard, and it doesn't yield and incorporate gracefully into my thoughts like ordinary words would, and then I'm all stumbling and disoriented. The dismissal and skipping-over is like having decided to put the rosemary plant six inches to the right rather than contending with the buried boulder.

"Heinrich Berlin": Irritation again, though less than before, and even faster skipping-over. It's almost exactly like coming across a word or phrase written in Russian. It's just some nonsense sounds that maybe mean something to somebody else and could perhaps come to mean something to me in the future given enough context, but I know that right now it's just a pointless name. But actually it's worse than that, because I know that I'm reading a history book, and I've learned that most of the names in history books only show up once or twice. It's not like when a main character in a fantasy book has an unfamiliar name that it would take a while to work out. In that case, I trust that it'll become familiar over time. But in a history book, proper nouns vanish almost immediately after they first show up.

"Temple of the Inscription at Palenque": Same as before, but this time with a feeling of exhaustion, "I'm fed up with this", and a motion of giving up. It's like my attempt to prepare the ground for a rosemary plant ran into three big rocks in a row, and maybe I should just find a pot and put the rosemary on my porch instead of in the ground. By the time I've gotten to the second half of the sentence ("identifying the ten figures on the sides of the sarcophagus by their name and glyphs"), it's like I've completely lost my footing and am tumbling freely down a hill. There's no chance for those words to make it in, because I'm too tired and disoriented.

I've recently learned something about how to read history. Like in the past three days. For my entire life before that, I would read something like, "In 1958, Heinrich Berlin published a detailed analysis of inscriptions on the sarcophagus lid from the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque, identifying the ten figures on the sides of the sarcophagus by their name and glyphs," feel all of the things I just described, and then be angry at the author for doing this to me and give up in either despair or disgust. Sometimes, especially if I'd been excited about the topic, I'd even feel betrayed. The problem is, history books look a lot like novels, and they even purport to tell "stories" about the past. Because of this surface-level similarity to something familiar, by default I take on pretty much the same mental posture I use when reading a novel. But that's not the only way to read something.

What happens when you're reading a novel and you come across an unfamiliar word? You look it up in a dictionary, right? What is it like to look up a word in a dictionary?

3. Let's try it; let's both look up "jentacular", a word I've just run into for the first time, and keep track of what happens in our heads as we do it.

Even before I open a new tab and start to type (I'm using an electronic source instead of an actual book because I'm 32 and the world is different now), I can tell that my mind has already begun to "use a dictionary". There's a sharpness, a focus, a searching. I feel a little like a heat-seeking missile. It's like I've created an open space in my mind, a definition-shaped cavity, that's prepared for the meaning of a word to fall in.

As I open the tab and type "jentacular", it's as though the cavity narrows. Something about it becomes sharper. I'm no longer a heat-seeking missile; I have become more like a diving falcon who has identified a specific mouse.

The dictionary says: "Of or pertaining to a breakfast taken early in the morning, or immediately upon getting up." As I read the definition, it doesn't immediately make complete sense to me. It takes me a minute to feel it out, to find the associated concepts and experiment with ways for them to fit together until I've found something I can hold onto. I scan up and down the entry a couple of times, and what finally makes the meaning settle in place is recognizing that this is an adjective. I had to adjust a little, because the definition-shaped cavity I'd created was accidentally a little bit more noun-shaped than adjective-shaped.

But I get it now: I have a daily habit of drinking a jentacular bottle of water even before breakfast. The deer are often full of jentacular yearning for my chrysanthemums. It was a bout of post-jentacular study of the Olmec that prompted this demonstration.

I expect you had a similar experience, because you know how to use a dictionary, too.

4. Now let's try this same thing with a novel. I'll give us a random sentence from a novel, and we'll track what it's like to read it.

"Then she turned slightly, looking to Aitrus lovingly."

Just before I read this sentence, as I look at the page in the novel, it's like I'm letting some kind of barrier dissolve so that the words can flow into me unimpeded. I'm making a welcoming sort of motion with my mind, and I feel a hint of curious excitement. It's as though I'm saying, "I wonder what this book will do to me!"

As I read the sentence, images happen. It feels effortless and automatic. All the work was in the preparation, when I made myself like a canvas. I read, "Then she turned slightly," and my imagination rushes forward to present me with a hazy image of a woman, and the kinesthetic sensation of turning a body a few degrees. I read, "looking to Aitrus lovingly," and the image becomes richer, more specific. The woman is an adult with long brown hair and an apron. My emotions about her become warm, I imagine a smile, and if I focus on the image for a while I begin to smell cinnamon, oatmeal, and chocolate chip cookies, and I know the smooth soft alto voice she will have when she speaks.

None of that is work. It's just happening to me, automatically, as I read. Imagining bits of stories is what my mind does when it rests. When it daydreams, and when it sleeps. So to engage effectively with a novel, all I have to do is get my deliberate thoughts, goals, and distractions out of the way.

Now let's go back to the history book. Why did you feel betrayed by the author?

There are a lot of years between us, so I could be wrong. But if you are like me in this respect, and if my memory of you is correct, it's because you prepared to read the story of history by cooperatively, trustingly, vulnerably getting yourself out of the way. You let your guard down, as though preparing for sleep, to become a blank canvas upon which the author might paint. You did what you thought was your part in the shared endeavor, and then the author failed to do what you thought was theirs.

But a history book is not that kind of story.

When it comes to the sort of cooperative endeavor in which reader and author together engage, a history book is much more like a dictionary than like a novel.

It's a little confusing, especially in history books written specifically for high schoolers, or for a popular audience; there's a lot of pressure on the authors of those books to entertain, to not completely alienate people who don't know how to read history. So there are sentences like the one we started with, but there are also exciting full-page pictures, sentences filled with action verbs and suspenseful clauses that sound a lot like tabloid journalism, and even artificially constructed novel-like plots.

Really, though, a history book is a kind of resource. It is a resource for answering questions.

If you started reading a dictionary, cover to cover, for no other reason than that someone told you to, it would probably be even more mind-numbing than your experiences with history books so far. It would be like that because you would not be using the dictionary in the way it was designed to be used. You would not be shaping your mind in a way that let you receive the type of information offered, and you would not be doing the work needed to make sense of the information once you'd begun to receive it.

Ideally, you'd go to a history book when you were already curious about a certain topic and wanted to understand its context.

I've been reading about ancient mesoamerican cultures, for example, because I've been really interested in chocolate, and I want to know where it comes from. What I find in the history books is a curated collection of a whole bunch of evidence about what happened in mesoamerica a long time ago, before cacao trees were domesticated. As I read, the work I'm doing is about sifting through and weighing all of that evidence to figure out for myself what the world was like when people first started to eat chocolate.

But since you're in a pretty terrible educational situation where people are going to plop you down in front of a history book and force you to either read or sacrifice your grades, here is what I recommend.

Never just start reading. If you have a history book in front of you, and you notice the getting-out-of-the-way feeling that is like reading a novel or preparing to dream, stop what you are doing. Do not read anything but the title of the section, or at most the first paragraph. Then get out a piece of paper, and make a list of questions. Ask yourself, "Given that I'm going to learn about X, what do I most want to know?" Think about what kinds of things you're usually interested in (poetry, philosophy, science, whatever) and try asking questions that have something to do with those topics.

Only once you have filled the paper with questions, or spent at least five minutes trying to, should you begin to consult the textbook. The author will present some evidence that might pertain to some of your questions. See if you can use what they have to say to figure out whatever it is that you care about.

Do not try to care about what they're saying just because they wrote it down. That's not how history books work, any more than it's how dictionaries work.

One of the questions on the list I wrote while preparing to learn about the Olmecs is, "What was going on in Europe at the time?" I knew that chocolate is not native to Europe, and that Europeans did a lot to advance chocolate-making technology once they got their hands on cacao beans. I figured that if I follow the history of chocolate, I will eventually get to the point where cacao arrives in Europe, and I didn't want that arrival to be a floating, disconnected point in European culture. I wanted to understand the context of both sides of the ocean. So I thought I should keep an eye on the paralel history of Europe as I learned the history of mesoamerica.

Thus, when I encountered the sentence, "San Lorenzo is the oldest of the heartland cities, dating from about 1500 B.C.," I did not feel irritation, dismissal, or skipping-over when I got to the number. I did stumble slightly—the number didn't fall right into my head as easily as most words would—but I knew how to recover, just like I knew how to make sense of "jentacular" when it turned out to be an adjective rather than a noun. I made sense of "1500 B.C." by pausing, mulling it over, recognizing that it was a year, recognizing years as shared reference frames across continents, and wondering what was happening in Europe at the time. Was this before Socrates? I think so. Maybe even before Greece, but probably not by more than a thousand years.

In the end, after a bit more work of this sort, here is how I understood the sentence:

"San Lorenzo [an ancient city near the Southern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, just within agricultural zone 11 so probably warm enough for cacao to grow] is the oldest of [the major Olmec population centers], dating from about [a thousand years before Ancient Greece, and two hundred and fifty years before the Olmec (took it over? started calling themselves 'Olmec'? changed in some way that contemporary historians now recognize them as 'Olmec'?]."

It took some doing to fit that sentence into my thoughts, and to understand most sentences I've read in same book. But it's not irritating or frustrating work, because I am eager to do it, and well prepared. That's the state you need to find before beginning to read history.

A final note:

If you're feeling up for a slightly greater challenge, imagine that the author was intensely curious about something genuinely interesting. They wrote this history book as part of gathering evidence about the interesting thing. See if you can reconstruct their list of brainstormed questions. Try to figure out what was so fascinating that they had to write an entire book to work it out.