“History had a slow pulse; man counted in years, history in generations”
― Arthur Koestler,
EDIT: I’m going to leave this post up on the blog for reference purposes. The nature of this blog has changed, and I focus far more on books than on pure, academic history. Obviously the two intersect pretty heavily (one cannot escape formative training), but basically? The below information may be useful to one person, one day, but should not be read as indicative of future content.
I write this post as a welcome to this blog, and to offer a little explanation of its title. Arthur Koestler, a controversial figure even in his day, is a man of many epithets. Slightly mystical, slightly provocative and imbued with existential meaning: his words have haunted the legacy of the twentieth century. I might never quite manage his way with words, but his presence at so many of the most important events in his lifetime have made him, in a peculiar way, inspirational. I think that there is a case to be made for breadth of knowledge, in this society so obsessed with expertise – and I think there is a case to be made for leading an examined life.
That quote comes from Socrates: he spoke the neat little line “the unexamined life is not worth living” at his trial, shortly before his execution. He was being tried for impiety and corrupting youth, which isn’t as bad as it sounds.
He described himself once, allegedly, as the “gadfly” of Athens which, like a sluggish horse, needed to be aroused by his “stinging.” That’s not as bad as it sounds either.
He was resented by many competing intellectual figures for his method of intellectual enquiry, which threatened their credibility and position in society as men of wisdom and virtue. Indeed, while his other politics might be seen as questionable, it’s this spirit of questioning academic ownership of history that has brought this blog to life. Leading an unexamined life, a life free of philosophy or deep thought, is a life not worth living to so many of us, and yet education is still such a privilege around the world.
History is ever present in society, and this blog seeks to make the past and its interpretation a little bit more accessible. This blog will be looking at important works of literature, fascinating people, cultural and social themes, political discourse, and strange events in order to prove that you don’t need to be an academic to be an intellectual. Equally, the public fascination with history deserves more than the military histories, swords and sandals, and dense biography that fills bookshops and TV schedules.
That right there is what the internet thinks ‘history’ is.
To get right down to the details, I’ll be writing from an openly biased and personal perspective about the history I come across in my work, my reading and my everyday life. You can expect maybe three posts each week, give or take. I plan to follow a rough pattern made up of the following few types of posts:
- Microhistories, niche narratives and other little episodes from the past. Coming up soon will be a look at the history of Automata in the French Revolution, Aspidistras in Victorian culture, and the colour Mauve.
- Ongoing thematic histories and lists. For example: spotlights on understudied nations, historically interesting animals, women in history. Top tens, listicles and all the usual things you expect from a blog. Ideas that can become series, rather than one-offs.
- More ponderous posts, in which I’ll talk more theoretically about how we think about history and the world around us. Some ideas so far include looking at the perceived links between mental illness and creativity, how historians seek to write about emotions, and why are we so obsessed why serial killers?
- The occasional ‘fun post’ (don’t laugh at my self-conscious use of ‘fun’). I’m already planning to give you some recipes for cocktails in historical literature, and all kinds of other posts that will act as breathing room between your hard work.
Each post will act as an introduction to the subject, rather than a complete work. I’ll do my best to provide you with links and suggestions for reading each time too: not so much homework, but hopefully just helpful resources for those interested in pursuing their interest further. And lots and lots of pictures too, of course.
I welcome suggestions and all other kinds of feedback. My intention is that this blog acts not as an authoritative source, but as a means of introducing ideas and inspiring you to want to learn more about things. I believe very strongly that the abilities of the average person are sorely underestimated by society: an interest in books, history, politics or any other potentially ‘academic’ subject is something to be cherished and pursued, not kept in an ivory tower.
I hope that this blog is helpful to you in someway and that you enjoy your stay. (And also that you ignore the slightly wishy-washy dreamer talk. It’ll be all kinds of sarcasm from here on in).