What you’ll need: A vivid imagination, a tolerance for dust

Songlist: John Lennon’s Remember or any of these songs about historical events

Further reading: Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

25,000-year-old handprints at cave in Lascaux

I had an epiphany during college. It was sophomore year and I was walking with a friend who had chosen history to be his major; I was still undecided. History, he told me, explains how the world came to be and gives us guidelines for how to live our lives in the present. Only by studying history will we ensure a better future.

It occurred to me then that history is a lens like any other potential college major, and our field reflects the way we understand the world. An economics major could easily argue the same point: decisions are driven by economic factors and economics therefore explain the way the world works. A psychologist would say the same thing for psychology, as would a physicist for physics, and so on.

I ended up choosing creative writing as a major because I understand the world as a vast network of stories. History is full of such stories. However, in high school, I never got that sense. I memorized dates and names of famous wars and men. But data doesn’t interest me nearly as much as narrative and so I never took any history classes in college.

It’s only after I started this blog that I realized how fascinated I am by history. If you’ve followed, you may have noticed that I often include a post about the history of the week’s theme, whether about spies, diseases, beer-brewing, or witches. I spend countless hours researching these histories and find myself engrossed in their richness.

Nazi soldiers sightsee in Paris

Two weeks from today I’m flying to Paris; I’ve been researching the city’s history in preparation. The period of the Nazi occupation particularly interests me. Whenever I learned about terrible historical events as a schoolchild, I would always imagine myself a hero: the person who gave food and shelter and transportation to the persecuted, the voice of reason that opposed the rulers. Though certainly there were some Parisians who “resisted” the Nazis, most inhabitants tried their best to continue their lives as normally as possible. I wonder what I would have done–written secret pamphlets and distributed them at risk of being executed? Helped foreign nationals escape into the unoccupied territory? Would I instead have accepted an invitation to a concert at the German Institute if it meant warmth and a filling meal? Or perhaps I would have clung to my ration cards, avoided making eye contact in the streets, and kept my mouth closed.

Each choice is illustrated in history by a multitude of narratives. And, due to my chosen major in college, I am of course creating my own.

 

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