May 22, 2005

How I Became A History Buff

I am not a historian, not even an amateur historian. What I am is a reader, and since I was little what I've liked to read is tales of the odd, the strange, the exotic, the interesting. Science fiction; fantasy; mysteries; this should come as no surprise to anyone who's read this blog for even a couple of weeks.

Quite a long while ago now, though well after I completed my formal schooling, it struck me that the past contained thousands of times and places which are as odd, strange, exotic, and interesting as anything in literature. You'd think that this would lead me straight to historical fiction; perhaps surprisingly, it didn't. Instead, it led me to "popular history"--the real stuff, packaged up for the layman.

I went to the public library, and checked out a copy of the first volume of Will Durant's Story of Civilization, Our Oriental Heritage. Durant takes a great deal of abuse these days; apparently his books are just chock full of errors and inaccuracies. I wouldn't know. I was after the general picture.

I don't remember whether it was The Life of Greece (Durant's second volume) or Caesar and Christ (the third) that our golden retriever devoured while Jane and I were out one evening. I do know that we caught him in the act, and that he was never again foolish enough to set tooth to page. Jane went to the library to pay the fine; "The dog ate it," she said. The librarian didn't believe it until Jane opened the bag and showed her the remains.

Just about that time the Book-of-the-Month Club had a promotion in Smithsonian Magazine--they'd send you Durant's complete series if you signed up. They'd been doing this for ages, but usually you had to promise to by four more books in the next year. That particular month, though, they waived the four book requirement. I jumped at it, got my set of books, and canceled my membership. (The requirement was back the next month, as it happens; clearly I wasn't the only one to take advantage.)

After I tired of Durant (I gave up at the Enlightenment) I discovered Barbara Tuchman; I also read quite a bit about the Roman Empire. It was only after that that I discovered historical fiction--Patrick O'Brian, George MacDonald Fraser, Dorothy Dunnett. The former two led me to the history of the British Empire, and Fraser in particular to Central Asia and China. From there, my reading spread all over the place.

I owe it all to Durant and Tuchman; without them, or other writers like them, I'd never have gotten so far.

Posted by Will Duquette at May 22, 2005 08:45 AM