Why I read history

I know a lot of people who have little regard for ‘history’ as such, and outside of the big, unavoidable events have little real knowledge of it. I’m different, and always have been.

I remember very well my grandfather’s library in the back room of my grandparent’s home in Strathmore. The ‘library’ in fact was a wall of tightly packed bookshelves that contained everything from Ian Fleming to Brendan Behan, history and sport and literature. I can recall as a kid being with my grandpa on occasion as he would enter a bookshop and browse, before leaving with some book or another in a taped up brown paper bag. Many years later some of those books are now mine.

My grandfather was a great and passionate reader. He was a quiet and gentle man by nature, but when he spoke his words carried some weight. He worked as an accountant at PMG – which is now Australia Post – for 50 years, and got a gold watch out of it. His two passions were gardening and books.  Though he had a great variety of books most where history.

From a very young age I was encouraged to read, and taught to love books. As I grew older I would spend hours standing before his book shelves. There I would pluck from the shelves an interesting looking title, which I would peruse standing up, and return with to a nearby chair to examine more closely if it took my fancy. I repeated that process time after time, year after year, selecting books and putting them back, before selecting another. We – my sister and I – spent a part of our school holidays with our grandparents each year at their home. Each year, imagine, the young H developing, each year a little taller than the year before, ripening as boy and then the adolescent I became, before entering into the world as a burgeoning adult.

Those books were part of that. In many ways those history books represented the adult word, of time passed, the broad sweep and trial of lives come and gone, of the epochs they lived through and the grand events I could read of and only imagine. Revealed in even the most innocuous of these books was the cycle of time that even I was part of. I did not think that way then of course, but I think there was some unconscious understanding of that. And so I was drawn back to these shelves of books time and again.

History still fascinates me. I’m an avid viewer of the History channel. I’m a regular reader of history of different types. As a child I read a lot of military history, taking my lead from my grandfather’s collection. I loved reading of monumental battles, the maelstrom as civilisations clashed and history as we know it diverted its course, or accelerated forward. This was always most evident and dramatic in the stories of war. Different forces ran headlong into each other, and like atoms colliding something always came of it. In the confrontation there were tales to thrill every red blooded boy.

As an adult I still read military history, and for many of the same reasons. I read with more depth these days, and look beyond the simple and obvious tales of conflict. And I read much more than that, but the consistent thread is that I am drawn to histories that reveal in some way what people thought or felt, how they lived, and why.  Even in the stories of discovery and triumph it is the personal element that rouses me.

There are many different reasons why history is important, and why it should be read. The most clichéd may be the old chestnut that those who don’t read it are doomed to repeat it. I take that to mean that a close reading of history reveals the interconnectedness of things. It is not the literal history we need know, but how it works, how it unfolds and the reasons why. Human history is the story of human nature and all its foibles. This fascinates me, and is something I seek to understand.

That’s why I read history. I read history for much the same reasons I travel. I seek to understand how people live and what they feel. To travel is to move from one place to another, from one geography, culture, society, to the next. To read history is to be similarly transported, but not from place to place, but from this time to another. And all we have now is the product of all that has come before. That’s why history matters, and why it should be understood.

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