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This is History, Folks. Right Here, Right Now

One of my projects this week has been getting caught up on really old NPR podcasts (yes, I live an exciting life ;)) and I encountered this story about the Man Booker Prize book for last year, Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. The part that really struck me was this quote from the book, about the difference between history you live through and history you only hear about:

I still read a lot of history, and of course, I’ve followed all the official history that’s happened in my own lifetime — the fall of Communism, Mrs. Thatcher, 9/11, global warming — with a normal mixture of fear, anxiety and cautious optimism. But I’ve never felt the same about it. I’ve never quite trusted it as I do events in Greece or Rome or the British Empire or the Russian Revolution. Perhaps I just feel safer with the history that’s been more or less agreed upon. Or perhaps it’s that same paradox again. The history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest. And yet, it’s the most deliquescent.

Although I probably won’t read the book — straight literary fiction isn’t usually my style — the point struck me nonetheless. The history that you live through seems, at least to me, somehow less inevitable than the stuff that you only hear about.

I’m 29, and I’ve experienced relatively few “big” historical events in my life. As a matter of fact, I have a very clear memory of watching a History Channel special on “We Interrupt This Broadcast” moments (the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of JFK, etc) with my dad about 2 weeks before I left for college, and commenting that “we haven’t had many of those since I was old enough to remember.” He countered that “you probably don’t want to experience too many of those.” And I shrugged, shipped merrily off to college in August of 2001, and then understood what he meant a little better a few weeks later.

History does seem different, somehow, when you can remember first-hand the way things were before it was made. My sister and I flew from Manchester, NH to Philadelphia in 2000, our first time flying without an “adult,” and our aunt met us at the gate; my cousins born in 1992 and 1994 (and my undergraduates) will have never had this experience. I saw Senator Obama speak in Oakland in spring 2007, when he was still “that guy who might get picked as Hillary’s VP candidate if she’s lucky enough to make it all the way.” Just saying those sorts of things makes me feel old, but it also gives me a sense of the flow of “the big story” of history that I don’t think I had when I was younger. Ditto being old enough to recognize better than 50% of the people whose deaths make the news these days; it’s always a little strange to me when some notable makes the passage from “contemporary” to “historical figure,” someone who my kids will never share space on the planet with.

I’ve had occasion to think about this in terms of my novel, too; because the tale I’m writing takes place in a larger world with its own complex and detailed history, there are a lot of “historical events” due to take place after the era in which my first book is set, and I already know the eventual fate (and manner of demise) of many of my characters even though the majority of them will be living happily for many years after the point in time that I’m writing about right now. It’s made me realize that knowing an ending does shape the way you frame what comes before. If I know, for example, that a character will die in 10 years by falling under a bus, I might be tempted to foreshadow this by having them trip and be caught by the protagonist JUST IN TIME some years earlier, so that when the protagonist hears later about their inevitable demise she can think “oh, no! If only I’d been there!”

It makes sense that I’d do this, of course; that’s how fiction works. But I wonder if we don’t do it in real life, too. I wonder if future generations of high school students will still wonder at how things would’ve turned out differently if New Hampshire had voted for Al Gore in 2000 (I missed being old enough to vote in that election by 6 months. I wondered), or how a different national disaster policy could’ve made the outcome of Hurricane Katrina less horrific, or whether the Star Wars prequels could’ve actually been good movies. Once history happens, it seems like most of us — at least those who are casual observers instead of professional historians — think of it as pretty much fore-ordained.

I’m not sure why I’m feeling so philosophical today; maybe it’s the political season, maybe it’s the fact that the 9/11 anniversary is looming again (it probably doesn’t help that we’ve turned the date itself into a title — though I suspect even so, the calendar date won’t carry the same weight for kids born in 2002 that it does for us “grown-ups”), or that my family’s approaching a big personal anniversary next week. But I do think it’s worth pondering, at least for a moment: how is the history you live through moment-to-moment different from the history that’s handed to you already pre-packaged with a beginning, middle, and end? I think maybe the stuff that we learn about abstractly (whether it’s the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the fact that there was a person on this earth named Abraham Lincoln, or the notion that North America was once populated by mammoths and giant buffalo) all feels a little bit like fiction — deliberate and planned, put together by someone with a sense of overarching plot — and it’s only the stuff we live through ourselves that seems messy and complicated and “real.”

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  1. Say Goodbye to All of This: The End of a Good Character « Sociologist Novelist
  2. History With a Twist: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Books « Sociologist Novelist

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