When I was working up application materials I had a critical essay I needed to include. I really liked this book I picked up on my vacation and felt — aside from the essay — that I had something to say about the possible uses of historical non-fiction for teens.
When I was just about done with the spit-and-polish on the essay I went back to the application to double-check on the page count and noticed that they specifically requested the essay make reference to the writing process, the craft of writing, how writing can change the world and cure communicable diseases worldwide.
Okay, I made that last part up. But I realized that I had to start over with an entirely new essay. I dug up an old review from the other blog and got to work honing it into a piece of razor-sharp insights and literary combustification. This is not the essay I sent, this is the “wrong” one. I still like it.
A History of Second-hand Truths
Snakes with Wings and Gold-digging Ants by Herodotus
reviewed by David Elzey
I hated history as a teen. As far as I was concerned history, the factual recounting of what had taken place in the world, was as dead as the trees it was printed on in textbooks. The word itself teases by containing the word “story” but what was offered up was an anemic tale at best, a neutered account of names and places in oversimplified contexts meant to impart a greater meaning.
What I needed – what is needed in general – was to go to the source. Young readers are constantly struggling to understand the world and their place in it and history, presented in an engaging manner, can provide that. By using historical documents and texts that speak of the world in a first-hand way, that show history as a raw tale of events, readers can filter and conceptualize within the context of their own personal truths and understanding.
For those who doubt this sort of thing can be done I only need point to the first book in the new Penguin Great Journeys series entitled Snakes with Wings and Gold-digging Ants, a selection from the writings of Herodotus. In a scant 115 pages we are treated to alleged first-hand accounts of the peoples and histories of the North African region as they existed 400 years B.C. by a man classically known as Cicero, The Father of History. With that little information alone as introduction the book plunges into some of the more extravagant histories ever recounted by an unreliable narrator.
Herodotus admits that he has heard fantastical tales of the people of the region but decides to limit his accounts only to those stories and events that he has witnessed with his own eyes… or second-hand from those he feels are reliable. A fair enough claim for a historian to make, but then he goes on to recount events from which he couldn’t have possibly been witness, and worse, claims to see things that we know to be patently untrue. He uses historical accounts from various peoples of the region to pick apart Homer’s account of the Iliad and provides an alternate interpretation. He notes, and approves of, the various polygamous tribes he encounters and makes many references of practices adopted by the Greeks that were clearly borrowed from others.
Things get trickier when he claims that no people live beyond the eastern edge of the great deserts of India (essentially all of Asia), or that there are tribes of native Indians whose semen is as black as their skin. To modern ears these claims smack of a blindness reminiscent of sailor’s tales that you could sail off the edge of the world (or presidents who insist on the presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction and that invading armies will be received favorably as liberators). It then becomes imperative that readers – and I’m speaking of young readers in particular – come to understand the historian within their times, in context, and to extrapolate from that how this “factual” information can be used to generate false assumptions. The Father of History suddenly looks to be nothing more than the gatherer of regional tales, the paterfamilias in a continuing line of storytellers.
It can be risky to introduce young adults to the idea that first-person history must always be viewed with skepticism as it opens the doors for micro-revisionism and unchecked bias, but as a tool for teaching critical thinking of what makes history meaningful the risk is worth taking.
Whether or not Herodotus’s errors were deliberate, they do still hold up as a window into what was popularly believed at the time. His reportage would leave something to be desired by modern standards, but that’s exactly the point in the study of history; the truth of the moment changes as it is understood from the standpoint of a later time.
There is a certain shrewd brilliance in this collection, pulling excepts that clearly read like an adventurer’s travelogue meant to tantalize. No doubt Penguin would like it if, their appetite whetted by the excerpts, readers went hunting down the larger editions within their back catalog. Where this smörgåsbord-style of study lacks the coherence of a traditional world history textbook its presentation makes up the difference by providing engaging historical documents – first-person accounts at that – with the promise of bringing history to life.