Part of my morning rhythm is reading. I keep a book, usually non-fiction, on the end table near my living room chair, and after I’ve taken the dog out briefly, I sit and sip some coffee while reading. Recently, I have tended towards reading books of history. Some have been styled in the manner of most history books but 3 of my recent reads veer off at different angles.
“The Vital Spark” (1959) by Lowell Thomas, noted writer, broadcaster, and traveler, known for his work filming and publicizing T.E. Lawrence — “Lawrence of Arabia.” Little wonder that Thomas uses the “famous man” framework for this book of brief biographies of “101 Outstanding Lives.” Spanning the ages from the days of King Solomon to the mid-20th Century, he takes us around the world from the Middle East to Europe to the Far East to America. Each bio is only a few pages, so I could read about 2 or 3 monumental lives before breakfast.
Most of the individuals he writes about are familiar names, even if I am not familiar with their life or historical context. That, to me, was the best part of this book. It borders on headline hagiography and certainly many of the subjects bear closer scrutiny before we close out any modern summary of their lives. But this book was written in 1959 and it reflects that time’s imprint of the hero as central to all history. I enjoyed reading anew about people I thought I knew, like Columbus and Benjamin Franklin, but I really enjoyed meeting folks I had never heard of, like Trajan and Clive and Foch.
Who, you wonder? Hey, read the book!
“Almost History,” (2000) by Roger Bruns, examines how people reacted to a series of key moments in history— many that did not happen.
Centered around existing documents, each vignette shares such things as General Eisenhower’s hastily scribbled notes should the D-Day invasion fail. Or the brief comments President Nixon prepared in the event the Apollo 11 astronauts reached the moon — but were stranded or died there.
Some of the incidents did happen, like the critical telegram sent out on Election Night, 1876, urging key governors to dispute their state’s vote totals. This started turning the tide of electoral history, embroiling Congress in deciding which disputed electors to accept. As as a result, Rutherford B. Hayes became president rather than the people’s choice, Samuel Tilden.
It’s an intriguing premise, to be sure — showcasing obscure documents. To frame the existing documents in the proper setting, Bruns provides some historical context, including details regarding the document itself, and then presents the lost or little-known document. Sometimes, the “reveal” turns out to be a bit of an anti-climax by that point. In more than a few chapters — e.g., the Tilden-Hayes election — the document is so brief and nondescript, it almost seems superfluous. That’s not a complaint, really — just my little critique on what was a marvelous read. Admittedly, I certainly couldn’t have done better.
Finally, “I Wish I’d Been There,” aggregates 20 short articles written by historians describing known historical events as if they had been there as eye-witnesses. Historians were picked to cover a wide range of individuals and events throughout history, with their accounts edited by Byron Hollingsworth.
He has chosen his events and his authors well to cover a long stretch of our history, starting back with Cahokia, a pre-European-“discovery” Native American metropolis in the middle of the North American continent.
Recently, my morning reading of this last book has produced two interesting coincidences. On Election Day, I read about “The Corrupt Bargain,” underlying the presidential election of 1824, when Andrew Jackson won both the popular vote and the electoral college — but by a plurality, not a majority. This forced Congress to decide the winner although it did seem the people’s choice was clear enough. Instead of choosing Jackson, however, John Quincy Adams won the vote in the House of Representatives and became President.
I had an eerie feeling reading that on Election Day in these uncertain times.
Then, on Veterans’ Day, coincidence struck again as I read about the final hours of the Great War before the Armistice ended hostilities in what we would later rename World War I. Reading about military maneuvers that continued up until 11am on November 11, 1918 on that same day 102 years later gave me pause.
In the end, coincidences are not so unusual in history, I suppose. Even for those who do study history, it does have this tendency to repeat itself. I enjoy my morning armchair time travels and will be sitting in on LBJ’s confrontation with George Wallace to finish out my current book tomorrow morning.
Forward into the past!