Living in Greece, with constant exposure and reference to history, has been a tremendous lesson in what I don’t know. The thing with knowledge is that the more you get, the easier it comes. Things start falling into place. Figures become human, multi-dimensional. You start to have an opinion. For instance- the Trojan war. I’m now definitely siding with Troy. It makes things more absorbing.
Two years ago, right before starting this blog, I had another project that I will, I hope, be working on for the rest of my life. My notes are labelled “The History of Everything.” There’s a couple of things I know a fair amount about, like how to encourage the formulation of beta crystals in melted chocolate. Or when and where a painting is likely to be from, and why it looks the way it does. But if I hear a piece of classical music, I know a lot less. There are lots of other gaps. Even though I know the date of the first publishing of Pride and Prejudice, the battle of Waterloo was, embarrassingly, without a firm date in my mind. (1815, just two years after the publication of the book. When you know that, then you wonder, could they see it coming in that whirlwind of officers’ balls? It adds a poignant layer.)
When I was young my dad would read to me passages from Braudel’s The Structures of Everyday Life. We went to the museums a lot- the Met in particular. Paintings served as windows on the curiously well -appointed worlds of the past (the cuffs, the corsets, the hairstyles). Forks were not commonly a part of this world, not until maybe the 1750’s. That’s the kind of thing I mean- how everything fits together. I started the project because I became overwhelmed by the sheer volume of things I don’t know, the things I couldn’t put together. You need to know a little about everything to see it: you’ve got Bach, you’ve got these crazy tall wigs, and you have no… fork? The more you know, the more you want to know- you want to see how everything connects, or, as in the case of the fork, doesn’t. I grew up analogue- the instant, demi-faux intellectual gratification of the internet is just not going to do it.
In the SF MOMA gift shop at SFO last year I picked up a small book, chosen because it was not heavy (literally), and because it was by Ernst Gombrich, author of The Story of Art, beloved reference book of our full year Survey of Western Art course (Art 100) at Smith. Master of historical survey, I thought it wonderful he could approach an endless topic in such a small volume.
Well, he can and he does, in plain language, without undue complications, and with plenty of whimsy. It’s quite a page turner. A Little History of the World is a children’s book. I’m very glad I did not realize this, because I probably wouldn’t have bought it if I had.
I could say Ernst Gombrich is a great story teller- and he is- but then it’s a pretty great story. He acquaints us with currents in thought- Aristotle, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Marcus Aurelius- crediting the reader with an ability to grasp a graspable thing. Life imitates art as we follow conquests of mythical proportions by very real conquerors. Dates, tiresome in school history, become really useful and interesting- illuminating connections between events rather than clouding the mind. The geography of the world fills with horses (even elephants!), as centuries fill with meaningful, memorable events.
Most of these events and protagonists and thoughts will be familiar, but many of us first learned them when they seemed less compelling than parties and concerts and countless other diversions of being 15.
This is a light, fast, rewarding book, whatever your knowledge of history. The fragments of remembered history become pieces on a puzzle, locking into place. That makes pretty much everything a little more enjoyable.