Yesterday was a very productive day for me. I got up rather early and decided to make the best of it. By 11am I had done the laundry, mopped the kitchen floor, mowed the front lawn, made a trip to two stores; one for lawn chair cushions, one for sprinkler heads, changed three sprinklers and hand watered my garden. Oh yeah, I also straightened up the garage. In case you are wondering, no, I didn’t take any drugs, though I may have made my morning coffee a little stronger than usual.
After lunch I wanted to do nothing more than to plop down on the couch and curl up with a good book. I envisioned myself getting completely engrossed in a story; one that would have me look up hours later, and think “when did it become dark outside?” The problem? No matter how long I stared at my TBR bookshelves, nothing grabbed my attention.
How about “The Road”? Nah, too depressing. How about “Shakespeare Saved my Life”? No way, school starts up again on Monday and I know this would take more than a day to read, and I would be tempted to read it instead of doing my homework. How about “The Great Mortality”? Nope, too dry. It was like opening up a refrigerator full of food and saying, “man, there is nothing to eat in here”.
Then it hit me. At the foot of my bed sits a table full of history books I’ve collected in the last five years. Each book is a promise to learn more about medieval history, science history and English myths. I’ve always meant to read them, but am too easily distracted by fiction, school and yard work. I counted them and was shocked to find I have 30 unread history books in my room! I decided right then and there this was the day I start reading them. I figure even if I get through two a month, it will take me over a year to read them all.
So here is what I’m going to do. I am going to set a reading and blogging goal. Some months I may read two, while other months it may be just one. Some books are longer than others and there is that darn school reading that must come first. I will then blog about my read, letting you know if it is worth picking up or not. Hopefully we can start discussing history and writing about history.
I’ve already gone through two; well gone through may be a stretch. I started one titled “A History of Knowledge”, which, by page 17, was clearly not history as we know it. Rather it seemed to be history as the author Charles Van Doren thinks it is. Ready for my review?
A History of Knowledge
Van Doren was the editor of Encyclopedia Britannica for 20 years. This is a guy who should know his history, right? Sadly, I’m not so sure now. I have to wonder, as the editor, did he read it?
Van Doren starts his book off with an overview of Egypt,why Egypt, and not Mesopotamia, home of the first civilization is unclear. What is clear is that Van Doren gives a lot of credit to the Egyptians for advancements in writing and construction, while completely ignoring all of the developments that came from Mesopotamia. As a matter of fact Van Doren starts his chapter on Mesopotamia with examples of Chinese writing and then goes on to say the Sumerians invented writing but only as a means of accounting purposes. Ah, hello? The Sumerians gave us the story of Gilgamesh, the oldest known story to date. This was no dry account of cows and barrels of food. They also invented the potter’s wheel and city walls. Van Doren goes on to talk about China’s Great Wall and how this “invention” changed China’s interaction with the world that still holds true today. If we are going to talk about inventions, let’s give credit to those who came first. And speaking of first, why start with Egypt? Mesopotamia developed the first civilization, though we can say Egypt developed the first empire, clearly it is not first.
Moving on, we find Van Doren’s take on the Aztec empire. Here he stopped me cold when he declared that the Aztecs sacrificed thousands of children a week! Thousands? Weekly? Really? Who says? According to Van Doren this account comes from the Spaniard Pizzaro and his men. Huh, huh. So the guy who helped wipe out the Mesoamerican culture, reports back on how monstrous they were. Sorry, but we all know that often times the conqueror tells strange and awful stories about their captives as a way of sleeping better at night. I cannot believe an historian would cite this as his source. As awful as human sacrifice is, here is what we really know about the Aztec ritual killing spree: the Aztecs didn’t always practice human sacrifice. Sometime around 1450, the growing Aztec empire was experiencing severe drought that lasted for four years and destroyed their valuable corn crops. The Aztec priests encouraged the people to sacrifice blood to the gods to regain their favor. In desperation, the Aztecs sacrificed thousands of people in a few weeks. Van Doren skips the “few weeks” aspect of the story and instead, leads his readers to believe this was an on-going practice, worthy of wiping out the Aztec culture. Sadly, we also know that once the Spanish started warring with the Aztecs, they once again took up the practice of mass ritual sacrifice as a cry to their gods. Van Doren is silent on this point.
So now he is hitting on religion. For some odd reason he starts with the “Jews” (by the way, in the begining they did not call themselves Jews ) and gives a very brief overview of the religion, without emphasizing the important changes that monotheism brings to human culture. Instead he questions the claims of being “God’s chosen people”. He questions all religions save one, Christianity. Here he has no problem with the claim of a dead man returning to life. He instead goes on and on about what wonderful man Jesus was (historically do we really know he existed?) and says of him “He combined the earthiness of the Jews with the mystical visions of the Christians”(17). Wait, what?? The mystical visions of what Christians? There were no Christians during the time of Christ. There were Jews who believed he was the son of God, but Christians going around having mystical visions? No! This would come hundreds of years later.
Here, I just stopped. This is no history book, at least not one I am willing to read. Shame on Van Doren for passing this off as “known” history.
Tomorrow we will talk about the book “Medieval Cats by Kathleen Walker-Meikle.