Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Interpretive History

I love history books, and I am often enticed by books about well known events or figures in history, especially abroad. I recently read a book about the Romanov family and the last Czar of Russia. I had heard the mystery of Anastasia when I was a kid and thought it was a rather tragic and bizarre story, so when I had an itch for something historic that was the winner. I enjoyed reading about Nicholas and Alexandra, their children and the life they had. I found myself feeling like I was getting to know them, which made

me sympathetic to their situation and eventual demise. I made my own assumptions and interpretations of Nicholas, his ability to rule an empire as large as Russia, his faults and what lead to his overthrow and murder. But history is subjective to the viewer and writer. We who read and study history are at the mercy of the interpretations of the writers and so-called experts. We have to form our opinions based on someone else's opinions, so rather than ending up with a solid pool of facts, we end up with a lot of convoluted facts, mixed with opinions and perhaps a little speculation. I don't really know the Romanovs. I don't know that much about Russian history, but what I do know I learned from a book that could have been speculation of the author.

So I started thinking about all the books that have been written, especially about people like Ann Boleyn, Da Vinci, William Wallace and others. How does an author who has no access to the subject themselves or anyone who would have had personal access to the subject write an entire book about them? Surely, a super sleuth and diligent researcher could come up with documents from the time, perhaps bits and pieces of personal letters or excerpts from a record kept from the time, but how could that be extensive enough information to write a book? I began to wonder how much of those books are subject to interpretation and opinion and imagination. Certainly many historical books have been written by authors who were not actually present or immediately associated, and many of those books can be considered historically accurate. But I always like my information from the source or through some other means by which the source could have communicated, like a journal. That's how you truly get to know someone in addition to thoughts and reflections of those around them with whom they were most closely associated.

So how much do we really know about things from the past? How much is speculation and opinion? And after being handed down generation to generation, being quoted and cited in subsequent works coupled with more opinion and interpretation, are we left with anything but a morsel of truth? There are always 2 or more sides to every story, and to every person for that matter. What do we mean when we say, "What's the real story beind __________ ? Is there just one real story? Probably not. That is the intrique of studying history. It is also an exercise in discovering truth, like a mystery that has a million clues but will never really be solved.

I wonder if hundreds of years from now someone might find one of my old journals and start speculating on what kind of person I was. Even as the words came straight from my mouth, written by my hand, would anyone truly know? History is really just a giant puzzle with millions of pieces that fit in several different spots and the picture is very different depending on who puts it together. I embrace the kaleidoscope of truth and interpretation.

1 comment:

Doug and Dawn Hardy said...

You always have such deep things to post. You have inspired me to want to do more reading about historical figures and events so that I too can have an opinion on how they came about.