Big History and Big Buts

by pamela on May 29, 2015

Several years ago, when I was working on a Big Project, I stumbled across the concept of Big History.*

It’s basically the opposite of the academic mantra “not my field.”  Proponents of Big History integrate many scholarly disciplines in order to look at human history as a tiny part of the history of the cosmos.  One of their favorite ways of illustrating how new we are is to compress the timeline of the universe from 13 billion years to 13 years. In this scenario, homo sapiens would have been around for 53 minutes.  The entire recorded history of civilization would have existed for three minutes.  “Modern” industrial society has been mucking up the environment for roughly six seconds. In short, we are a blink in the eye of the universe.**

This TED talk by Big History promoter David Christian sums up the basic principles:

[Reminder: if you receive this post by email you may need to go to the History in the Margins website to see the video. Just click the headline or the link.]

It’s fascinating stuff.  My introduction to Big History has inspired me to ask slightly different questions than I used to ask.  Not just how the salt trade functioned, but why our bodies need salt.  Not just when did farming start, but how grain was domesticated.  Not just the role of fire in making tools, but the role of fire in making man.  But, and for me this is a Big But,*** stories about people are what pulled me into history.  Here on the Margins I often focus on the smallest stories.  When I think about writing books, I gravitate toward big sweeping themes.  But whether the scale of my story is tiny or grand, my subject is people, not great flaming balls in the sky.  I’m interested in what happened in that last three minutes,  or maybe just a little bit before.

Which means I’m not quite sure what to do with Big History other than admire the intellectual audacity behind it.  Any ideas?

*Or more accurately, someone beat me over the head with the idea.

**Or maybe a piece of grit.

***And as my best friend from graduate school will tell you, I love Big Buts. (Sorry, sometimes I can’t resist.)


Bernard Cornwell on Waterloo

by pamela on May 26, 2015

Bernard Cornwell writes historical fiction.  Really vivid, well-researched historical fiction with a military bent and complicated main characters. Now Cornwell makes his first foray into historical nonfiction with Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles.

Published in time for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, Cornwell’s account features the powerful storytelling and carefully chosen details that characterize his fiction. Although he emphasizes the fact that battle is inherently confusing, he presents the confusion experienced on the battlefield at Waterloo to his readers with utter clarity. He rests his story on the viewpoints of individuals present at each stage of the battle, using letters, journals and memoirs of ordinary soldiers and officers from all three armies engaged on the field as well as those of Napoleon and Wellington. Each chapter opens with a useful map of the action discussed–a luxury military history buffs will appreciate.

Cornwell opens the book with the question “Why another book on Waterloo?” Others may ask, “why another book by Cornwell on Waterloo?” (He explored the subject previously in the novel, Sharpe’s Waterloo.) The answer lies in the writing. It is true that Cornwell’s Waterloo is not a work of innovative scholarship. It does not present new insights or use new materials. Instead, it is a splendid example of historical narrative; as Cornwell himself describes the book at the end of his foreword: “So here it is again, the story of a battle.” And a gripping story it is.


The guts of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.



Daughters of the Samurai

by pamela on May 22, 2015

In Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey From East to West, Janice P. Nimura tells the story of three young girls, ages eleven, ten and six, whom the Japanese government sent to the United States in 1871 as part of the westernizing reforms of the Meiji Restoration that transformed Japan in the mid-nineteenth century. The idea was that when they returned to Japan they would teach a generation of Japanese women how to raise enlightened sons.

The experiment was set in motion with remarkably little planning. They were nominated by their parents with an eye toward political and economic benefits for their families. All of them were scarred, one of them literally, by the recent civil war that had overthrown the shogun and destroyed the power of the samurai class. They spoke no English and had a chaperone who didn’t speak Japanese. They were on the boat for two days before someone arranged for them to get regular meals.

Nimura brings skillful storytelling and a high degree of cross-cultural awareness to her account of the girls’ successful (and often joyous) adaptation to a new culture, their difficulties re-adapting to their own culture when they returned ten years later, and how the long-term relationships they formed in the United States shaped women’s education in Japan.

Daughters of the Samurai is an engaging work of women’s history set in a moment when the status of women was changing in both Japan and the United States.

This review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


Meiji Restoration

The new fighting the old in Meiji Japan. ca. 1870

As I’ve mentioned before, in 1853 the United States government forced Japan to open its ports to United States merchants in a literal display of gunboat diplomacy. Commodore Perry’s act of military aggression against Japan is often given credit for dragging Japan into the nineteenth century. In fact, the real credit for Japan’s transformation belongs to the generation of Japanese elites who orchestrated the political and cultural revolution known as the Meiji Restoration.

Under the leadership of the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan had chosen to shut itself off from Western influence in the early seventeenth century. By the mid-eighteenth century, Japanese suspicion of all things Western had begun to fray around the edges, at least among the intellectual elite. A handful of Japanese scholars shifted their focus from Chinese culture to so-called “Dutch learning”.*

In the early nineteenth century, motivated by domestic problems and the threat embodied in Perry’s “black ships of evil mien”, reform-minded daimyo** began to mutter against the power of the shogunate, agitate for a restoration of imperial power, and call for the adoption of western learning and technology, particularly Western military technology. (We are, after all, talking about members of the samurai class, who were defined by their role as warriors.) In the years after Perry “opened” Japan,*** muttering turned to civil war.

In January, 1868, after two years of war, reformist (or perhaps more accurately, anti-Shogun) troops occupied Edo Castle, abolished the shogunate and proclaimed the “restoration” of the fifteen year old emperor, known by the reign name of Meiji. The Meiji Restoration, which lasted until the 1912, was a period of self-conscious modernization and westernization–a focused leap across more than 200 years of technical innovation and social revolution in a period of forty some years. Members of the Japanese elite were sent to Europe and the United States to learn about Western government, western industry, and western culture. The reforms that followed transformed the government, the economy, land ownership, education, and the military. Much of Japan’s traditional life style was swept away, leaving in its place a new enthusiasm for western ideas on the part of urban intellectuals, a newly reconstructed vernacular literary language, and a new philosophy of individualism.

The abolition of the samurai as a warrior class was perhaps not the most important of the changes in practical terms but it was the clearest symbol of the decision to move from the medieval to the modern world.The samurai class was officially abolished in a series of measures that began in 1871, when all samurais were required to cut off their topknots, and ended with the Haittorei Edict of March 1876, which took away the samurais’ right to carry swords.

Many samurai found new ways to serve Japan in the reformed government. Others found themselves with neither purpose nor livelihood. The last gasp of the samurai came in 1877. Saigo Takamori, sometimes known as the Last Samurai led a hopeless rebellion against the Japanese government. Six hundred samurai, armed with traditional sword and bow, fought the government’s newly trained modern army in an effort to reverse the westernizing changes that threatened their entire way of life. Many of the rebels believed it was better to die using the traditional weapons of the samurai than to live using modern ones–not surprisingly, they did.

With the samurai no longer a force, Japan built the modern army that would be a force to be reckoned with in the twentieth century.



*During the medieval period, Europeans in the Middle East were collectively known as Franks, after the Germanic tribes that ruled much of Europe. Similarly, “Dutch” was shorthand for all things Western in Japan because the only foreigners allowed to have direct contact with Japan were merchants from the Dutch East India Company (VOC). (You couldn’t describe Dutch interaction with Japan as close–the merchants were confined to the closely guarded island of Dejima in Nagasaki harbor and VOC ships were allowed to dock once a year. The Iron Curtain looked like it was made from fishing net by comparison.)

**The feudal lords of shogunate Japan

***A phrase that always makes me think of a can opener and a tin of tuna.


Went The Day Well? Witnessing Waterloo

by pamela on May 15, 2015

In case you’ve missed it, the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo is nigh.  As is always the case with major historical anniversaries, major historical hoopla has begun. The first commemorative articles have already appeared. Reenactment groups are preparing a grand scale reenactment–5000 reeanctors, 300 horses, 100 cannons, a gazillion spectators.* And new books on the battle are flooding into history bloggers’ mailboxes.

David Crane opens his history of the Battle of Waterloo by referencing Bruegel’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, in which farmers plough their fields unaware of the boy falling from the sky. He offers the image as a metaphor for the way most people experience historical events–and as the basic idea behind Went The Day Well?: Witnessing Waterloo.

On June 18, 1815, Britons knew Napoleon, having escaped from Elba Island, was on the move across Europe. They had no idea that the final battle of the Napoleonic Wars– which was the defining event for a generation–was underway. This disjunction is the heart of the book.

The first section of the book is an hour-by-hour account, from midnight to midnight, of the Battle of Waterloo. Crane moves back and forth between Britain and Belgium, using diaries, newspapers and letters to look at both the battle and mundane details of that day in England as experienced by poets, radicals, foot soldiers, officers and paupers. He introduces readers to a factory boy, a soon-to-be-widowed bride and a Gothic novelist-cum-travel writer determined not to miss the most thrilling event of her time. The second, much shorter, portion of the book considers the aftermath of the battle, both for the individuals who appear in the prior section and for Britain as a whole.

Went The Day Well?
is an unusual and illuminating account of Waterloo that will appeal to fans of the Napoleonic Wars and Regency history buffs alike.


* When we were in Belgium several years ago I actually thought about trying to attend this for about two insane moments.**  Instead I’ll make do with the official reenactment website.

**Those of you who know me in real life and have watched me hyperventilate about the crowds at the Chicago Blues Fest–or Home Depot on a Saturday afternoon–are howling with laughter at the thought.


The heart of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.




It’s hard to believe, but we’ve been hanging out here on the Margins for four (4!) years. It started as an experiment; it’s turned into a conversation. I’m honored that you read. I feel even more honored when you respond, whether it’s in the form of a comment here, an email, sharing a link to a post on Twitter, or talking back to your computer screen. Over the last four years you’ve expanded on the topic, asked questions, recommended books, given me ideas, and, on one occasion, administered a well deserved smack on the wrist.* Thank you.

Since it wouldn’t be a birthday party without presents, I have a handful of books to give away.** If you want your name to be put in the mid-sized mixing bowl, leave a comment or send me an e-mail before June 1. Tell me what kind of history you like to read, what period calls your name, who your historical hero is, or which of these books calls your name:

Cynthia Stokes Brown. Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present.

Richard Davenport-Hines. Voyagers of the Titanic: Passengers, Sailors, Shipbuilders, Aristocrats, and the Worlds They Came From.

Elizabeth de Waal. The Exile’s Return.

Darrin M. McMahon. Divine Fury: A History of Genius.

TWO COPIES:Nicola Phillips: The Profligate Son, or, A True Story of Family Conflict, Fashionable Vice, and Financial Ruin in Regency England.

At the risk of sounding like a presidential candidate,here’s to four more years!

*Scroll down to the comment by Wyatt. It’s worth reading. Wyatt, if you’re still reading, I want you to know I’ve used your comments as a touchstone ever since.

**Six books, six chances to win.,

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress


Ballpoint–The Tale of a Tool

by pamela on May 9, 2015


Like many readers, writers, and scholars, I am an unashamed office supply junkie. I trail through my local Office Depot with the same delight I accord to grocery shopping* and only slightly less fascination than I feel in my local independent bookstore. (Go Seminary Co-op!) I like my pens to have a fine-point and my notebooks to be college-ruled. I’ve never met a specialized pad of paper that didn’t catch my imagination and I hoard my stash of hard-to-find summary paper.

I always knew that ballpoint pens were a relatively modern invention, but I never knew how we made the leap from fountain pen to ballpoint.** I found the answer in György Moldova’s Ballpoint: A Tale of Genius and Grit, Perilous Times, and the Invention that Changed the Way We Write.

Although his work is little known in English, Moldova has been Hungary’s best-selling author for more than forty years. In Ballpoint, Moldova tells the story of two other notable Hungarians largely unknown in the west: Lázló Biró and Ander Goy, the inventors of the ballpoint pen.

The story of the pen’s development is interesting in itself, beginning with Biró life as a Jewish journalist in interwar Budapest, frustrated by a leaking fountain pen. Biró’s technical difficulties and triumphs are told in a clear, non-technical manner. His search for financial partners is an object lesson in understanding legal documents before you sign them.

But what really makes the book is Moldova’s use of Biro and Goy’s story as a lens through which to view the troubled history of Hungary in the mid-twentieth century. Biró escaped from fascism by fleeing first to Paris and then to Buenos Aires. Once in Buenos Aires, he traded increasingly large percentages of the rights to his as-yet-undeveloped pen for help in getting his family safely out of Hitler’s Europe. His erstwhile partner and fellow inventor, Goy, remained in Hungary. He prospered under fascist rule, but lost everything when the new communist government nationalized his company. By the end, both partners had lost their rights to the pen as a result of financial deceptions and legal chicanery.

It makes me wonder if there’s a heroic story behind the invention of, say, the stapler.

*That is not sarcasm. I love grocery stores–ethnic, mainstream, or neighborhood bodega. Just ask My Own True Love, who patiently accompanies me to grocery stores, farmers’ markets, spice shops, and cheese emporia wherever we happen to be.

**I had a brief and inky flirtation with dime store fountain pens when I was ten or so. As far as I’m concerned, the romance of the ink bottle is dead.

The guts of this review appeared many moons ago in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


Punctuation, grammar, and like that

by pamela on May 6, 2015

Mary Norris

Anyone who comes to History in the Margins solely for historical tidbits may want to abandon ship today. Instead of committing my usual history-geekery, I intend to talk about the most appealing book I’ve ever read about the mechanics of writing.*

One of the things that instructors of writers say with some frequency is that before you break the rules of grammar (or story structure, or punctuation or physics) you need to know them. Mary Norris, the author of Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, knows the rules: she’s been a copy editor at The New Yorker for some thirty years. That’s a credential that would earn her book a place on my reference shelf alongside Fowler, Strunk and White, and the Chicago Manual of Style–or at least as close as the rules of alphabetizing allow. But credentials alone wouldn’t inspire me to read Between You and Me over meals instead of my current meal-time novel–or to bring it to the attention of the Marginites with evangelical zeal.

Norris is witty, irreverent, and a world-class storyteller. Between You and Me is as much memoir as it is grammar guide. There is plenty of practical information, presented with absolute clarity; in the future I’ll turn to Norris when uncertain about the correct use of my personal bête noir, the hyphen. But the grammatical advice is given almost as if it were the punchline to a personal story or the jumping-off point for an essay on a larger subject.** Along the way, Norris takes the reader on engaging side trips: Noah Webster and spelling reform, the invention of the comma in the Renaissance, the Paul A Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum (now on my road-trip list).

In short, Norris takes what is often the driest of subjects, written in the most pedantic style, and makes it sparkle. If writing is an important part of your life, you need this book.

*Those of you who read History in the Margins via e-mail may not realize it, but the subtitle reads “A blog about history, writing, and writing about history.” If you want to verify this, just click the header in your e-mail and it will take you to the History in the Margins site. This trick is useful to remember when I embed a video or a bit of music.

**I draw your attention to the chapter titled “The Problem of Heesh”–an extended consideration of the larger questions of gender in language and society that begins with the vexed problem of the third personal singular pronoun in English.


A Good Place to Hide

by pamela on May 1, 2015

In A Good Place To Hide: How One French Village Saved Thousands of Lives During World War II, Peter Grose describes how a population with its own experience of religious persecution and two charismatic pastors with unlikely international connections turned isolated community in the upper Loire Valley into a haven for Jews and other refugees during World War II.

A Good Place To Hide combines solid historical research with the narrative tension of a spy novel. Grose roots the story of Le Chambon and its neighboring villages in the experience of French Huguenots as a religious minority, the relationship between the Vichy government and Germany, and growing French resistance against the Nazis. He traces the communities’ gradual shift from hiding refugees to helping them escape into Switzerland. But the heart of the book lies in the stories of individuals, often told in their words, using journals, letters, memoirs and interviews. A 17-year-old Jewish office machine repairman who became a master forger of identity papers. A teenage girl who carried money from one Resistance cell to another, right under German noses. A mother of five who scoured the countryside for safe houses. Middle-aged refugees who disguised themselves as Boy Scouts and hiked toward freedom. The activist pastor who inspired the community to offer sanctuary with a literal reading of one Old Testament verse.

In the vein of Schindler’s List, A Good Place To Hide is an inspiring account of the extraordinary courage of ordinary people.


This review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers


“Closing” Japan

by pamela on April 28, 2015

Curious Japanese watching Dutchmen on Dejima. Katsushika Hokusa. ca 1802.

In 1853 , Commodore Matthew Perry and his squadron of four “black ships of evil mien” opened Japanese ports to trade with the United States, a literal example of “gunboat diplomacy”. * Most historically literate Americans are aware of Perry’s expedition in broad terms, even if they don’t know any of the details. Western accounts of Perry’s success treat it as a major step for both the United States and Japan’s development as modern powers, a triumph of modernity over traditional culture, a triumph of free trade over protectionism.* Popular accounts of Japanese history treat it as the first step in the Meiji Restoration.

These accounts generally slide over the question of how, when, and why Japan was “closed”–itself an interesting episode in early east-west relationships.

As in India, the first Europeans to reach Japan were the Portuguese, who reached the islands by accident when a ship was blown off course in a storm in 1543.** Soon Portuguese merchants were trading Western firearms and Chinese silk for Japanese copper and silver . At the same time, Portuguese and Spanish missionaries converted hundreds of thousands of Japanese, including at least six feudal lords, to a form of Catholicism that was filtered through Buddhist concepts.***

The arrival of Europeans to Japan coincided with a period of political upheaval in Japan, known as the period of the Warring States. In 1600, the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated his rivals, using modern Western weapons such as cannon and muskets. He declared himself shogun, the first of the dynasty of Tokugawa shoguns who would rule in the name of puppet emperors for more than two hundred years.

Ieyasu immediately moved to consolidate his power. He disarmed the peasants and decreed that only members of the samurai warrior class would be allowed to carry swords. More important in terms of Japan’s relationship with the outside world, he ordered the country closed to Europeans.**** Christianity was outlawed and the missionaries were expelled. Tens of thousands of Japanese Christian converts were killed.***** Trade with Europe was limited to the Dutch East India Company, which was allowed to dock once a year at the man-made and closely guarded island of Dejima in Nagasaki harbor. After 1639, no Japanese were permitted to go abroad, Japanese ships were forbidden to sail outside Japanese waters and any Japanese sailor caught working on a foreign ship was executed.

Closing the ports against “contamination” by Western ideas is often presented as evidence of Japanese backwardness. After all, the Japanese missed the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the rise of the middle class. On the other hand, during much of the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan enjoyed a period of peace and order, secure from being taken over by Western powers. And as we shall see in a future post or two, once the doors were open, Japan was quick to catch up.

*Like the Opium Wars between Great Britain and China, Perry’s expedition can also be seen as an example of international bullying if you look at it from the other end of the cannon.

**Just to give you an historical framework, Vasco Da Gama reached India in 1498.

***Estimates range from 250,000 to 500,000 thousand, making Japan the most successful of the Asian missions.

**** It is important to point out that Japan maintained contact with both China and Korea, countries with which they had long, complicated relationships.

*****This was not a simple case of martyrdom, nor is it parallel to the Roman response to Christians. In 1637, Japanese peasants in Shimbara Peninsula rebelled against heavy taxation and abuses by local officials. Because most of the peasants in the region had converted, the Shimbara Rebellion soon took on Christian overtones. In one of the ironies with which history is rife, the Japanese government called in a Dutch gunboat to blast the rebel stronghold.