Archive for category History

An Open Letter…

…To Crash Course World History

Dear Crash Course World History,

Why you gotta end?

I suppose I understand when presenting history as a narrative, eventually you’ll get to the modern day and have nowhere to go. Sure, you could fill in subjects you missed, like the Vikings. Which I guess would be fun and all. But the appeal of your videos is that you presented history as a story, something that has characters and settings, not figures and geography. Perhaps that’s what happens when it’s taught by a novelist rather than my school teachers.

I’m gonna be honest with you. I didn’t like history much in school, largely because every school would focus on this person did this thing on this day and you have to regurgitate all those things for the test next week then fill in a map showing where Anatolia and the North Sea are. There was no emphasis on making history interesting or accessible. So I went through life knowing that Rome was a thing, that the Renaissance saved civilization, and George Washington made America. Go team Western Civilization! Then I found the videos, as I suspect most did, through Vlogbrothers and Swoodilypooper football. However, I was not expecting to get so swept in. Not to a point that I would watch each episodes multiple times to make sure that I got them, or that I would do a massive watch of the whole thing to lead up to the last episode so that I could see the overall narrative.

And I certainly didn’t expect what happened about halfway through. I started looking for more history. Craving it. I’ve now sat through Columbia University courses on World History, University of Houston courses on the Crusade, NYU courses on ancient Israel, all things available on YouTube. I’m listening to a podcast series on The History of Rome on my commute every morning, and have lined up two different podcast histories of the Byzantine Also-Roman Empire. Now, I don’t know if I found Crash Course World History at a time I was particular open to rediscovering history, or if you caused it, but either way you’ve been an instrumental jumping off point. Through you I discovered the eras that I wanted to know more about, and I went out and found more. Then I shared you with my wife, and hope to one day show your videos to my daughter, currently 9 weeks old.

So here, at the end of this 42 week journey, I just wanted to voice my thanks to John Green and his high school history teacher Raoul Meyer. To producer and director Stan Muller. To script supervisor turned associate producer Danica Johnson. To intern turned script supervisor Meredith Danko. To the graphics team at Thought Bubble. And, really, to everyone else that had anything to do with the production of the series for awakening in me a love of the subject.

Next week I see you start Crash Course Literature, another subject that I didn’t enjoy much in school. Stupid teachers never wanting to teach the books I wanted to read. I’m with you for that journey, too.

I’m just worried that one might involve more homework.

Best wishes,

David Thurston.

Oh, and for those reading this letter who haven’t watch the series, it starts here.

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Those Who Don’t Study History…

…are doomed to repeat it. At least, such is the classic trope. We are warned to remember the mistakes of the past so we do not make them again in the future. Which is all well and good when it comes to a broad societal level. However, as a writer recently caught up in relearning world history, may I instead say that those who study history are blessed to repeat it.

My education into world history (which currently involves the 180-someodd part The History of Rome podcast and the University of Houston Youtube course on the Crusades) has taught me things I didn’t know, reminded me of things I’d forgotten, and filled me in on details of events I thought I understood. Above all else, it’s given me story concepts. These largely fall into two broad categories, but I’m certain others will arrive.

Prester John as included on 1588 Portuguese map of Africa.

Reliving history. I first learned about Prester John during the Crash Course World History episode on 15th Century maritime exploration. For those not aware of the story, he is a mythic Christian king cut off from Christendom (by which people typically meant European Catholicism) but still keeping the faith. One day he would rejoin with the devout and help kick the asses of any non-believers in the way. At times his kingdom was meant to be in India, at times in Africa, always just beyond where Europeans were comfortable with the geography. At one point in history, Prester John even rose up and led his armies out of the far east to tackle the nascent Muslim threat spreading through the Arab world and knocking on Europe’s door.

Only…yeah, it wasn’t so much Prester John as it was Genghis Khan. Easy mistake to make, I’m sure.

Prester John shows up, or rather fails to show up, for several centuries, especially during the Crusades. The story naturally brings to mind a plotline I came across both in Earthman, Go Home and Delusion World in my Ace Double readings. It’s the story of humanity spreading so quickly among the stars that planets get lost or forgotten in the process. Take this trope, sprinkle in some Prester John, and now there’s a space opera spinning around in my head.

Rewriting history. Anyone who is looking to write alternate history must first be comfortable with the real history. Largely because not everything will change. But this isn’t even about that aspect of alternate history. This is learning about points in history that I now want to change. Especially in connection with the Nickajack world, asking questions about what is different about this earth not just in the 1860s, but in the 1760s or even 1060s. Yeah…maybe I’m thinking about writing a Steampunk story set during the Crusades. I’m still trying to figure out what the story even is there, but you can bet Baldwin of Boulogne, aka Baldwin I will show up.

So get out there, learn a little history. The stories of the past are fantastic fodder for genre fiction, and are sometimes just fun to learn.


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One Week of Fatherhood

Two thoughts after one week.

Thought the first: Baby has a lot of hiccups. This is apparently very common among babies, and not a problem unless the hiccups bring up stomach contents, at which point it’s a baby version of the condition I suffered through a few years back. In researching this, however, I came across a discussion of baby hiccups, and what doesn’t work to cure them. Long and short, like human hiccups there are few known causes or cures, but plenty of folk remedies. Here were the “cures” that the site specifically pointed out don’t work:

Don’t try to cure hiccups by startling your baby, pressing on her eyeballs, pushing on her fontanel, or pulling her tongue, which are common folk remedies in some cultures.

The fontanel, for those keeping score at home, is also known as the soft spot, a place where the skull hasn’t yet fully fused. I was surprised that some parents may need to be told, hey, maybe don’t poke the soft spot.

Thought the second: Today is the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It’s impossible not to look at things in terms of my now one week old daughter.  She was born not just after the attacks, but after the 10th anniversary of the attacks. This is an event that so defined lives of multiple generations that will only ever be a history lesson for her. I was trying to put that in some personal perspective, so I checked out the year-in-history pages on Wikipedia for 11 years before both my wife and I were born.

For my wife, the 11 years ago event was Apollo 13. For myself, it was the assassinations of RFK and MLK Jr. It’s stunning to think that she will be as removed from 9/11 as we are from those events. The world keeps going, and the present very quickly becomes the past.

This blog will probably return to normal next week.

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History and Historiography

I’ve talked about my recent obsession with world history a few times over the last month. I’ve wrapped up the Columbia University world history to 1500CE course on YouTube, I’ve worked my way through The Great Courses offering “Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations” ($10 sale price, bought before I realized how much learning there is for free), and even as I type this I’m listening to an episode of BBC’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects.” I’ve recently added five podcasts to my iPod, in almost their entirety:

  • The History of Rome
  • In Our Time Archive: History
  • Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History
  • Norman Centuries
  • 12 Byzantine Rulers

In total this represents probably a week’s worth of history. Oh, not the amount of history I could listen to in a week, not a week of commutes or a 40-hour workweek. A solid non-stop week of history, in the range of 150-170 hours. It’s about learning things that I never knew before, but through it all I realize that it’s not so much history that has fascinated me. It’s historiography.

I was aware that historiography was a thing, the word laid somewhere in my brain thanks to course catalogs back in college, but it came back up while listening to the Columbia University course linked above. Taught by Dr. Richard Bulliet, one of the authors of the textbook being used in the class, it was equal parts world history and explanation of the choices made when created the text, and that fascinated me. Then the word surfaced, and I went to make sure I understood its meaning. Simplified, it’s the history of history. It’s all the questions about how we approach history, how we teach it, how we understand it.

In the first episode of the 100 Objects BBC series, presenter Neil MacGregor made it clear that the title of the show is “A History of the World” not “The History of the World.”  The latter would likely require more time than it took to make the history to begin with. Really, the notion that what I learned in school was only a world history is what brought me on this path. I learned a history of the world called Western Civilization, which generally goes Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Dark Ages, Renaissance, Columbus then sort of peters out because the semester ends. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this world history, just incomplete. Yes, it’s a little provincial, but it tells a story. Something that Dr. Bulliet makes clear is difficult to craft when it comes to a more broad-based world history. In the end even his history, or the broader history of Crash Course, leaves out some core elements. Japan and the Vikings become rumors. Native groups outside Africa, Asia, and Europe only show up when contacted.

There’s a lot of world history.

History is, at its heart, a story. A narrative. Historiography asks how do we craft that narrative? Do we track Western thought through its origins through to its exportation to the New World? Do we talk about a series of great men as they mold and shape their world? Do we approach history as a clash of civilizations? I’ve taken a break from my series about world building the earth, but if we are to look at our planet as a story setting, and approach questions of “why are things they way they are?” as a world building question, then historiography is how we decide on our plot, and look at how other people have approached their plots.

And that might be where my fascination lies.

History is such a broad narrative that there are endless right answers on how to approach it. And endless wrong answers. Each of the right answers has its weaknesses, but each provides a different angle that can fill in the gaps. As a crafter of stories, it’s fascinating to see how many approaches there are to stories I once thought set in stone. Or how many other stories were going on at the same time.  Or how stories I thought unrelated to each other share some characters I’d never noticed. It turns history from a single narrative into this weird shared-universe anthology, only with considerably more disagreement between authors about the underlying canon.

Of course, the easiest way to explore historiography is exposure to multiple histories. So I continue on. Back and forth, looking at broad themes and tight focuses. What can I say? It’s actually kinda fun.

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