3 Books that Humanize History
Humanity is in the details, and these remarkable reads show it by displaying the small snippets of lives lived once upon a time, when humans were very different but also much the same.
In my previous post, I presented an artefact that has made history seem more tangible and raw for me than the textbooks or even most museum pieces: Mehmed the Conqueror’s childhood doodles. In this post, I want to present you with three books that I have found to be similarly fabulous, each with its own particular ability to make the chasm of time and space transform into a narrow stream, laid with stepping stones created by the author’s guiding hand. Enough of the poetics from me. You will get a good deal of that from the works listed here, either directly (Galeano, cough cough) or from the feelings that they inspire.
1. ‘Mirrors’ by Eduardo Galeano
Self-described to consist of “stories of almost everyone”, Mirrors is a modern classic in the creative anthropology department (yes, I just made that up). Galeano has created a true gift with this collection of hundreds of densely packed mini-tales — almost all less than a page — which describe the human experience through a historical lens.
There is no better way to humanize history than by recognizing the flaws and endearing idiosyncrasies of past human beings. On that note, Mirrors has a similar tone to Homo Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, though the format lends itself more to being read in any order. There are also MANY opportunities for a good Instagram caption.
To whet your appetite, here is what Isabelle Allende said about Galeano’s powerful works: they “invade the reader’s mind, to persuade him or her to surrender to the charm of his writing and power of his idealism.”
Hmmm… Sounds too good to miss out on.
2. ‘Benjamin Franklin: An American Life’ by Walter Isaacson
It’s funny that, until very recently, I had absolutely no interest in biographical books at all. I found them too irrelevant and packed with the details of lives that appeared much more interesting at a cursory glance than in a deep dive. That is, until I delved into Walter Isaacson’s meticulous creation on Ben Franklin, the beloved Founding Father.
Perhaps it is just that this man was too cool to ever be boring, or perhaps it is the research and writing skills of Isaacson himself, but you can rest assured that this biography has a lot to offer. For me, its greatest value is in its depiction of this political giant in the most human way possible, which allows the reader to get into his mind — even if only for one blissful second — and feel united with history.
Isaacson put this sentiment into words so elegantly when he wrote, “Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us.”
As opposed to the other Founding Fathers, “Ben Franklin, that ambitious urban entrepreneur, seems made of flesh rather than of marble, addressable by nickname, and he turns to us from history’s stage with eyes that twinkle from behind those newfangled spectacles. He speaks to us, through his letters and hoaxes and autobiography, not with oro-tund rhetoric but with a chattiness and clever irony that is very contemporary, sometimes unnervingly so. We see his reflection in our own time.”
3. ‘The Diary of Samuel Pepys’ by Samuel Pepys
Here is a book that we are truly lucky to have had passed down to us. Pepys kept a detailed diary about his everyday life from 1660 to 1669, and although this was a personal project for him, upon its publication in the 19th century, it provided readers with one of the most important (and human) primary sources that we possess of our history.
In his entries are the thrilling real-time accounts of the bubonic plague, the Great Fire of London, and the Second Dutch War, among others major events that always seem so distant in the history classroom. I believe that reading a few relevant pages from Pepys’ work during a school unit study on his time period can drastically improve the impact of that education on the students.
Intimate historical texts such as this one pull in the past and the future like magnets working for, not against, each other.
Upon a quick look over the entries, we can learn, for example, that on January 4th, 1660 (the fourth day of his keeping the dairy), Pepys felt unwell: “Home and so to bed, but much troubled with my nose, which was much swelled.”
It is such a small thing, but I hope that I have been able to convince you by now that the humanity is very much in the details. I hope that at least one of these texts has inspired you to explore history through a new and more intimate lens. Now, get reading!