Monthly Archives: September 2012

What to get a historian for his/her birthday

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I just had a birthday.  It was grand–well, actually, the day-of was hectic and busy, but that just means an extended celebration that lasts through the weekend!  I was given gifts, too.  Good gifts; gifts I liked.  This brings me to my post, today.  What do you get a historian for his or her birthday?  Let me impart some advice (but, please, adjust accordingly for personality and preferences of the historian to whom you wish to give):

  • Books.  I defy you to show me a historian, or any scholar of the arts and sciences, who doesn’t have a book wishlist stacked a mile high–after some culling this week, I found my Amazon wishlist is 15 pages long!  Plus, some of the really interesting and important books in our fields are often pricey.  Academics seldom get to purchase the books in their field for NY-Times-Bestseller-prices.  Having said that, we tend to have specific interests and needs in the field–there are a lot of marginal history books that we DON’T need.
  • Maps.  Atlases from the era we teach or discs that we can use in class are also of value both to us and our students–especially, for those of us who are adjuncts and get little departmental supplemental money for our teaching needs.
  • The arts.  Ok, so one needs to allow for personal taste, here, but most historians I know enjoy an array of music and the arts.  Concert tickets, play performances, special exhibits at the art museum often fit nicely into this category, but movies may apply neatly, as well.
  • How-to manuals for technology.  Increasingly, technology is a necessary tool for us folks who study long ago dusty eras–some of which predate the printing press, let alone computers–so, the know-how for basic technologies, such as social media, blogging, and digital sourcing, can be of real value.  The fact is that some of need to learn to use new tricks.
  • Wine-tasting classes.  This is just a useful, professional skill to have, even for preferred beer drinkers.  (And, knowledge of alcohol is the gift that keeps on giving.)  I’m not saying that tickets to the craft beer fest are off-limits (especially for me!!!), just that wine knowledge has many uses and is enjoyable to boot.
  • Travel.  Ok, so probably, most of the time, one is not in a position to give “travel” as a birthday present, but donations to upcoming trips, travel guides, or gift certificates to travel companies can go a long way.  Most of us do not have the luxury of living in the areas we study, but we like to visit.  Besides that, especially among the historians I have known, there is a deep appreciation for travel and seeing the world–a natural curiosity to see other places, encounter new cultures, and eat foreign foods.
  • If you don’t know what they already have, there is no shame in gift certificates to Amazon or Barnes & Noble–with these we have limitless options in our media interests.

This is not a perfect list, but it is representative of some of the sweet acquisitions I hauled in from my birthday this week.  My mother got me a book about Jean-François Champollion, who broke the hieroglyph code, and a handful of DVDs from the museums in Berlin covering their Egyptian collection, Near East and classical collections, and their Early Modern masters–we’re going to Berlin this New Years.  In addition, our family got me a trip to The Shakespeare Theatre Company to watch The Government Inspector adapted from the Nikolai Gogol story.  Oh, and a slice of baklava cheesecake.  It was a lovely!


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Happy National Comic Book Day!

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Happy National Comic Book Day!  I follow the National Archives on Facebook and in honor of  this auspicious day they shared some great treasures from their holdings.  To see them click on this link: National Comic Book Day to see some of the comic books and related artifacts that they acquired due to a Senate subcommittee’s investigation into the posited connection between comic books and juvenile delinquency.

Comic books are a fascinating time capsule of American life.  For a time, as the National Archives describes in its Facebook album, the comic book industry self-regulated itself to try to avoid running afoul of potential Congressional sanctions.  This concern added to the comic book’s popularity and its simplicity in communicating messages is likely what contributed to the medium’s adoption of educating the populace.  (Note, that this is my speculation.)  Comics with Problems is a website that has gathered digital examples of comic books addressing social issues, health concerns, and child education from throughout the industry’s history.

Yahoo! News has these facts to share about comic books:

  • The real success of comic books for the mass market didn’t begin until 1937 with the publication of detective comics.
  • In 1946, comic book sales in the U.S. outsold traditional books.
  • On July 20, 2006, the United States Postal Service released DC Comics Super Heroes. It was the first commemorative stamp pane honoring America’s legendary comic book Super Heroes.
  • The world’s largest comic book collection belongs to the Library of Congress in Washington. It contains more than 6,000 titles, 100,000 issues, and grows by about 200 issues each month.

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If you find you’ve lost those Calvin & Hobbes books you used to have or can’t seem to locate a newspaper and you want to participate in this great day, I might recommend a great comic book online compendium:  But, that assumes you don’t have time to go to a comic book shop.  After all, there are few things as wonderful or as American as a comic book shop.  Full of bright-colored treasures and bursting with artwork and story lines, you will meet the widest array of people amongst the fellow customers and shop owners perusing the vast depths of American culture (and sub-cultures).

I, myself, far more enamored with the stories than the responsibility of taking care of the media, long ago gave up the regular subscription or collection of specific comic book series in favor of the collected book editions that I could purchase at my leisure.  I occasionally regret this decision, because there is a unique sensation in holding the light-weight, brightly paneled, floppy comic book, accompanied with a multi-sensory experience… the smell of the ink, the visual fireworks, the sleek, smooth cover.  Fortunately, I have a handful of older mini-series I have collected.  From these I can still extract a comic book from its transparent, plastic envelope, held flat by the special white boards that protect the comic.

Be sure to enjoy National Comic Book Day–I know I will spend some time at the local shop in Federal Hill (Baltimore)!  Comics are an important part of American culture.  First snow day we get this year, I plan to take a break with my kid, drink hot cocoa, and read comics a la Calvin and Hobbes!

Heading to Alliance Comics in Federal Hill (Baltimore) for National Comic Book Day!

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Methods of reading…

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It is perhaps inevitable that I would study the medieval era and perhaps inevitable that I would go to grad school to study history.  I say this in observing how I read.  It appears that I have a rather medieval turn of mind which is seen in the analysis of my inquiries: my investigation invariably grows laterally as I gather authorities and auctores around me in my study.  The medieval literary mind would seek a greater synthesis of all materials than I do and would likely have a greater memory of their library stored in their brain matter than I do, but otherwise the similarity remains.

As I proceed into an inquiry, just as many other scholars do, I seem to assume the quintessential image of the professor working away between mountains of books.  Note, that  I said inquiry as opposed to research project, because it is not always the case that I am engaged in a serious research project when the near-obsessive, hound-like hunt begins.  I may have just read something that has simply made me curious, in an article or a novel.  I begin pulling books off the shelf and sniffing out the trail my synapses seem to have created.  Often, I think I would like these to develop into projects, but it happens so frequently that I cannot possibly live long enough to pursue every track to the prey.

I am a historian, a traveler, a writer and a lover of mysteries–though I define mysteries far more broadly than crime–and, as such, I currently have several book projects and possible articles collated and filed in my brain.  (I can only hope that my brain’s filing system is more finely tuned and calibrated than my office suggests.)  Journals, nearly a fetish of mine, are filled with notes, outlines, and text-pockets sewn together with arrows.  These are maps of the inquiry as it unfolds on my desk, literally reaching new heights, before I finally concede a need to get back to authorized assignments and official business.  Hopefully, I will have the opportunity to pursue these projects more thoroughly at some point, but simple math assures me that many will never come to fruition.

And, yet, there is little regret.  While I read more slowly than other folks with my background, training, and interests, I am quite at peace with the lively energy that accompanies even modest intellectual pursuits, including more than a few that were intended simply as pleasure.  The truth about texts is that they are forever talking to each other in ways that no one person can entirely grasp, even the authors.  So, my desire to join the conversation is, while rarely planned, as much part of the program of the textual world as it is inherent in my own composition.  Although, I admit it is sometimes difficult to turn off and can be nothing but a nuisance at one in the morning.

I have always had a reputation for being energetic, but the energy is not only a physical trait, it is a mental trait, as well.  Perhaps, it is less medieval and simply over-active.  Also, I concede I have found a powerful need to balance physical activity with intellectual activity throughout my personal history.  I suppose that is why I was able to earn my black belt two-and-a-half years ahead of schedule when I was an undergraduate, one semester before graduating with one major and two minors.  None of this is meant to brag or suggest I have a powerful intellect, because I have met people with powerful intellects and am well aware of my lacking.  In fact, some bright psychologist reading this may be just as inclined to diagnose me with ADHD!  (If so, I contend that I have developed some successful coping mechanisms.)

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(Oh, to have “old” history…) Archaeologists may have found last “medieval” king

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Archaeologists believe they have found skeleton of King Richard III – Telegraph.

Click on the above link to see The Telegraph’s coverage of the archaeological discovery that could be the last Plantagenet king of England, vanquished by the future Henry Tudor VII, Richard III.  Shakespeare paints an ugly picture of him–literally deformed and evil–but Shakespeare also wrote in the Reformation-Tudor era of Elizabethan England.  (It’s a good article with a video, too, so really go read it!)

Little is known about the man who was the last English king to die in battle (at the Battle of Bosworth) especially in the last two years of his life.  Public opinion has largely been fashioned by the victorious new dynasty, the Tudors, and literature.  Now, the English are asking themselves–assuming it is more conclusively demonstrated that the body found is indeed King Richard III, of course–about whether he should be given a state burial.

Wouldn’t it be nice to ask such questions about American history? We have a great deal of difficulty there.  Anything “American” is most definitely well after the medieval era, of which many scholars define as ending in England with Richard III’s death.  Given that the English are our progenitors, beginning in the reign of Elizabeth Tudor, we must acknowledge that there is no archaeology of western civilization to be found in our soil before the early modern era.

It kinda makes me jealous.

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War of 1812 Possibilities: Exploring social history through military history


On a recent trip to the Niagara region, I came across the publication printed above, Green Coats and Glory, the United States Regiment of Riflemen, 1808-1821.  It tells a truly fascinating story about the first American attempt at forming a corp of riflemen.

As the essay by scholar John C. Fredriksen acknowledges, we often think of the independent and resourceful riflemen of the Revolutionary War, but in the War of 1812 this loose and independent compilation of men had been regularized into a formal unit.  They were still deadly and independent and resourceful, but they also were issued uniforms and equipment, following the command of officers.

Unlike English counterparts, Fredericksen explains, the American military history of regiments has been neglected in favor of the political as regards the War of 1812.  While military history often gets snubbed and looked down upon by “serious” scholars (in some cases simply because it is regarded as tedious), it is one of great popularity among history-lovers in the general populace.  And further, while it is can be the work of piecing together troop movements and strategic military chess, it can also be an enlightening foray into social history.

This examination of social history is especially true of military inquiries on this side of the pond where military advancement into the officers’ ranks was not unattainable as it largely was among the British units.  Thus, the study of the men in the units is frequently a study of a real cross-section of the population.

Fredericksen’s decade of research through many archives–especially those of historical societies–is one demonstration of many for the possibilities of rigorous historical research in military history that produced an interesting survey of social American history.  Many storylines were revealed as he accessed a more personal account of the War of 1812, especially, beyond the few usually geo-political analyses of a largely forgotten war.

Hopefully, this type of inquiry will garner both more attention from the public and appeal from researchers in honor of the War of 1812’s anniversary.


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