Editor’s Note: Have you ever wondered why people continue to write new history books about very old topics, and why libraries need to buy them? Once something happens, it doesn’t change, right? So why can’t we just read old books about it and be done with it? In today’s post, James explains how historiography–or the study of historical writing–has changed over time, and how various approaches to history differ. –Brittney Reed-Saltz
Like any trained professionals, historians have a history, and there are two watershed moments where we could start telling it. The first is in ancient Greece, with Herodotus. Renouncing the authority of myth and legend, he embarked on a self-critical pursuit of knowledge. When interviewing witnesses to the events, he did what any good attorney does to a witness in a court of law: He cross-examined them. He called his book Inquiries. (The ancient Greek word was ‘istoriai, the root of our modern word “history.” Modern translations just call the book Histories.) For our purposes, it doesn’t matter whether Inquiries is entirely free of errors or assumptions; it quite obviously isn’t. What matters is it represents an undeniable and fundamental shift in the concept of historical truth: It is not something to be related, it is something to be discovered. This attitude has generally characterized historians ever since.
The history of history-writing (historiography) since the Inquiries has taken many forms.
This will be the last blog entry that I post here. After a little over five great years with Rutherford County Library System, I’ve made the hard decision to open a new chapter at another organization. Of course, I’m not really leaving the library; I’ll be stopping in probably once a week, at least, to browse the stacks and check out books. But I will miss being able to share what I’m reading with all of you.
But before my departure, I wanted to recommend one final book: Melmothby Sarah Perry.
First, the setup: For the past 20 years, Helen Franklin has been living in a state of self-imposed exile in Prague. She works as a translator, occasionally shares dinners with her friends Karel and Thea, and lives with a landlady she detests. Her life is much like the landscape of Prague during winter as Perry describes it, just as cold as desolate, though unmarked by the wonder that others might feel when looking at the beautiful buildings or the grand astronomical clock. Just as Helen ignores these features of the city around her, she denies herself moments of pleasure, even something as simple as a piece of cake.
Her drab routine is interrupted when Karel shares a story with her. He had struck up an odd friendship with a fellow visitor to the library. This friend told him about Melmoth, a figure he learned about as a boy, a woman cursed from antiquity to roam the earth, feet bloody, finding no rest, forever seeking companions. This friend, Karel tells Helen, is now dead.
And then, Karel, himself, disappears.
Thus the stage is set for intersecting stories of betrayal, guilt, and abnegation, told in the form of letters, journal entries, and historical documents. The narratives weave back and forth through time, united by the shadowy figure of Melmoth, forever watching from the periphery.
This book is a thing of beauty. The language shines, as does the cover, emblazoned in rich blues in a design of jackdaw feathers. Its deckled edges are as delightful as its moments of sly, dark fantasy. When I wasn’t reading Melmoth, I wished that I was, and when I finished, I thought first that I would probably read it again, sometime in the future.
Melmoth is not a mystery, and it’s not quite suspense, but you will keep reading to satisfy your wondering. You will be slightly confused, and you will want to keep going, to gather all of the pieces that you know you don’t have, but will, perhaps soon, perhaps on the next page.
I’m not going to tell you what is revealed when the pieces are assembled; after all, the pleasure is the acquisition of each piece. But I will say that I was glad that I read this book. It’s a mixture of the timely and the timeless, and is the perfect Gothic read for winter to put you in a contemplative mood.
People read books for different reasons. Some people are plot-driven, seeking out books with multitudinous twists and turns and non-stop action. Others read for information, and prefer nonfiction. Some are author-centric, and tend to stick to the same familiar names that have not let them down over the years.
But for some people, characters are the most important part of a text. These readers might forget exactly how a book ended, but their favorite characters’ first appearance will be emblazoned on their minds and hearts forever. These are the readers who like to imagine what it might be like to meet a character from a book. They’re the ones who identify wholeheartedly with Elizabeth Bennet or Hermione Granger or Holden Caulfield (or insert character here) and consider said kinship as good a way as any to explain their personalities.
I said “they” a lot in that paragraph, but of course I mean “we.” I’m definitely a character-driven reader, and each new book is an opportunity to meet new people who might change my life, regardless of the fact that they’re fictional.
And just like when you meet a new person and find yourself reminded of someone you already know–“Oh, you have to meet my friend So-and-So, I think you’d hit it off!”–I sometimes imagine making introductions between my favorite literary characters.
Here are some characters that I think would make great friends, despite living in different fictional worlds.
Henry DeTamble (The Time-Traveler’s Wife) and Tom Hazard (How to Stop Time)
Both Henry and Tom have problems with time: Henry has a condition that causes him to spontaneously time travel, while Tom’s causes him to age so slowly as to be nearly immortal. While these are two very different problems to have, I think that they would be able to sympathize with one another. They also share a love of music, though Tom might find Henry a bit quaint and naive… After all, he’s 439 years old.
Amy Dunne (Gone Girl) and Adele (Behind Her Eyes)
It’s hard to fully explain why Amy and Adele should hang out without revealing too much about either book and thereby spoiling the reading experience. But I will say that both of these women are highly intelligent, very crafty, and know what it’s like to keep a secret. I can imagine them meeting up for coffee and sharing the salacious details of their latest schemes, delighting in one another’s intricate deceptions. They would probably be frenemies, but I think they would have a good time.
Alice (The Hazel Wood) and Vivienne (The Cruel Prince) This is another case of characters becoming friends through the shared weirdness of their existence. Alice grew up on the run from her the legacy of her grandmother, a reclusive author who penned a deeply strange collection of fairy tales. Vivi is a girl living in a fairy tale… Literally, in the Faerie realm, until she decides to try and return to the human world where she once lived. Both girls have been through more than their share of adventure and hardship. They could swap stories and give one another what survivors of trauma need: someone who will listen and believe.
Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) and Isabel Townsend (Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord) Elizabeth chafes against the societal expectation that women will inevitably get married for money, and refuses to enter a loveless match. She’s shrewd and independent, both qualities that she shares with Isabel, who operates an estate independent of a male caretaker, a highly unusual endeavor for a woman during the early 19th Century. Isabel is a little bit farther ahead on the timeline than Elizabeth (Ten Ways… takes place in the 1820s, while the events of Pride and Prejudice occur somwhere between 1797-1815), but I still like to imagine these ladies meeting. It would be much better for Lydia to go live with the other women in Isabel’s home than to have to marry the heinous Mr. Wickham. (Seriously, is anyone else creeped out by the fact that she has to be stuck with that boor for life, rather than getting a second chance while he’s shunned from society on a desert island or something?)
Roland Deschain (The Dark Tower series) and the man (The Road) Roland and the man (yes, that’s how McCarthy refers to him) both know what it’s like to live incredibly bleak lives while trying to survive and look out for the people they care about. Both are gruff and cautious by necessity, both have seen and done some stuff in the way of people living in post-apocalyptic worlds, and I see parallels between the man’s relationship with his son and Roland’s relationship with Jake Chambers. This also works well given the idea in The Dark Tower series that all worlds are real and connected. (“There are other worlds than these.”) Imagine an alternate version of The Road where Roland and his ka-tet encounter the man and the boy and band together with them! How differently things might have turned out…
I am thankful for the vast and ever-changing collection of cookbooks in our library system. Cooking has always been passion for me. Mom went through a nouveau cuisine phase when I was the only child left at home, and this had a huge impact on my understanding of food and dining. But cookbooks are expensive! By checking out the new offerings at the library, I can decide if a book is worth purchasing for my personal collection.
(Of course, by using my tablet in the kitchen I can go to Saveur or Food 52 and follow recipes online. But that just isn’t “the same”.) I also shop at the Friends of Linebaugh Library book sales for cook books – great deals and adventure found there.
According to my records in Goodreads, I average 10 cookbooks every year (this doesn’t count the dozens I flip through when they are returned by other patrons). Thanks to my library, that’s $300+ saved annually on just cookbooks!
I found this last one when walking through the 641s at Smyrna Public Library. Not an item I would have thought to search for, didn’t know it existed! My husband and I have been very pleased in learning the history of bread, pasta, potatoes, and more through historic texts and tapestries.
Thank you, RCLS, for anticipating this foodie’s need to learn more about food!
There was a time in my life where I thought that I would never be old enough to use yarn for any purpose. I was the one who made fun of everyone younger than, say, 80, including two of my closest friends for acting like Grandma and Grandpa. There was even a time where I was obnoxious in my taunting, and I may have snorted with laughter a time or two. Surely, only old people did that, or people with nothing better to do. I was too cool for that! Turns out I was completely wrong, and I needed to apologize to my friends.
I had decided to quit smoking, and I needed something to keep my hands busy. I immediately thought of my friends and their hobbies. So I went to the local craft store, and I bought a few skeins of yarn and a 5 mm hook. My idea was to learn to crochet a granny square afghan and drape it across my sofa like I used to see on a TV show growing up. Now, did I run right out to the library and grab some books full of beautiful patterns? No way, José. I did not want anyone to see me with those uncool books. The fun part was, I worked at a library and saw these books everyday. I knew there was an endless supply of beautiful patterns that were FREE and available to me. Pride, people, my pride just would not let me.
So, home now from the craft store, where no one can see me, I do what everyone does: I Google what I want to know. Well, wouldn’t you know there are thousands of videos to choose from. I felt intimidated and frustrated immediately. I spent an hour trying to find a video that wasn’t too fast or slow, because remember, I was detoxing that nicotine out of my body and was quite irritated that this was not simpler and I couldn’t figure it out. I hated having to pause and rewind, or worse yet, the person talked really slow and I had to fast forward. I had succeeded in making knots and chains, a few single crochet stitches, but mostly I just kept “frogging” my weird little knotted creation and trying to make the same thing over and over again. I wanted to give up! But oh, I had this beautiful yarn and I had never quit anything before. I know, I was quitting smoking, but hey, there are always exceptions!
The next day on my lunch break, I run off to the nonfiction section and I find the 746s. I pulled book after book after book off the shelf and wanted to take them all home. There were titles like First Time Crochet: The Absolute Beginner’s Guide, Deborah Burger; Crochet : The Complete Step-By-Step Guide, DK Publishing, Inc.; Easy Weekend Crochet Hats: A Ski-Style Collection for the Entire Family, Jennifer J. Cirka; Granny Squares & Shapes : 20 Crochet Projects for You and Your Home, Susan Pinner… I mean it was endless and so secretly exciting! I imagined myself in a blanket fort in my living room with all of these books, intertwined with yarn and hooks spread out all around me. I was excited and inspired! I was going to make afghans for everyone I knew, and I would have them all done for Christmas! Deflating my happy balloon now… If you have ever tried to crochet, you find out a few things. One being that there is something called time, and that sucker gets in the way. Thankfully, though, the time it took me to learn the basic stitches to crochet a lap size afghan, a few scarves, and one Christmas gift, two and a half months had passed and I was nicotine-free and I had a rewarding hobby that I loved!
It’s been a few years since then, and I have been crocheting away! I love it, and I am nowhere near 80 years old. I offer my humble apologies to anyone whose feelings I have hurt about their yarn love! Through the years I have created many different projects and I am currently hooked on making amigurumi animals. Snuggle and Play Crochet: 40 Amigurumi Patterns for Lovey Security Blankets and Matching Toysby Carolina Guzman Benitez is one that I borrowed, renewed, and then I didn’t want to give back. I was lucky enough to receive a copy for Mother’s Day! Thanks, Bro!!
P.S. I am still smoke-free!!
Do you share Marlene’s yarn obsession, or do you want to get into knitting or crocheting? Come to the Smyrna Knitting and Crochet Group or the Yarn Love group at Linebaugh! Check out our events calendar for more details.
Crimson Peak, one of my favorite movies, is widely regarded as a failure. I think that this is largely due to mismanaged expectations on the part of audiences. They bought tickets expecting a $50 million horror movie, but what Guillermo del Toro had made was something far different: a Gothic romance.
Gothic and horror are related, but they’re not the same thing. I think of it as a matter of adrenaline. You’re not going to feel that kidney-spike survival instinct kick in when you’re reading or watching a Gothic. Rather, you’re in for creeping dread and lingering wistfulness.
Both are things that Crimson Peak has to spare, along with all of the tropes that make a Gothic so darkly delicious: a determined heroine, a dark and brooding hero (who inhabits that role with ambiguity), a crumbling old mansion, plots leading to doom, disturbing family secrets, and, of course, ghosts (and, for my money, the most stylishly-designed ghosts in the history of cinema, but I adore del Toro and might be a smidge biased).
I bring up Crimson Peak because I think it’s a perfect example of Gothic fiction in film, and because we’re heading into the perfect time to read Gothic literature. As the days shorten and the weather takes a turn for the dreary, some people seek escape in lighter reads or the warm bustle of Christmas books. I much prefer to lean into the current season and embrace the somber atmosphere of November.
Here are some Gothic novels, from classic fare to more recent explorations of the genre, available through RCLS.
Foundational Texts: If you want to get down to the origins of Gothic literature, you’ll need to go all the way back to 1764, to Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto. It is considered to be the first Gothic novel.
Two out of three Brontë sisters published Gothic classics during the Nineteenth Century: Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre, and Emily, Wuthering Heights. (Anne Brontë wrote less… intense love interests in her novels.)
If you want to read a send-up of the Gothic and the way it inflames readers’ imaginations, you’ll want to check out Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.
Romantic Suspense: Crimson Peak gets its inspiration from classic Gothic literature, but also from Gothic romances, which are distinct from other Gothic novels in their focus on a romantic plot. Often a plucky heroine finds herself in a spooky house with a creepy kid and a brooding guy who might or might not have committed a crime. She might be depicted on the paperback cover wandering through a corridor with a candlabrum, or else fleeing from the house wearing a gauzy nightgown, looking back over her shoulder in abject terror. (Neil Gaiman’s 2006 poem “The Hidden Chamber” incorporates this trope.)
Gothic romance following this formula, also called “romantic suspense,” had its heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, and it’s still what a lot of people think about when you talk about Gothic novels. When you look at books from this era, three authors come up again and again: Mary Stewart, Phyllis A. Whitney, and Victoria Holt.
Gothic in the 20th Century: Romance isn’t the only game in Gothic fiction, and the 20th Century also featured less pulpy examples of the genre.
Daphne du Maurier’s Rebeccais an essential Gothic novel, exploring the classic “I wonder how my new husband’s ex-wife really died?” plot. She also wrote Jamaica Innand My Cousin Rachel, which was adapted for film in 2017.
Shirley Jackson’s work is getting increased attention for the Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, but the original is far, far different… and regarded by many, including Stephen King, as the best horror novel of all time. You should also read We Have Always Lived in the Castle or, to explore her short fiction, the collection Dark Tales.
Susan Hill’s 1983 slim novel The Woman in Blackreads like a much older book, and is a good example of slow-burn terror. If it sounds familiar and you don’t know why, it might be from the 2012 adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe.
If you would like to get lost in a lush trilogy, try the Gormenghast series by Mervyn Peake, starting with 1949’s Titus Groan.
Of course, a supremely fun and easy way to get a dose of Gothic goodness or to acquaint yourself with the hallmarks of the genre is Edward Gorey. His signature pen-and-ink illustrations accompany odd and macabre tales that are immersed in Gothic aesthetics. Beyond his own writing, he also had a prolific career as an illustrator of other people’s books. He had a penchant for lending his pen to creepy stories, so you can often take his byline as illustrator as an endorsement. (An example being the Louis Barnavelt series, starting with The House with a Clock in Its Walls.)
Contemporary Gothic: Luckily, since the turn of the 21st Century, the Gothic lives on as contemporary authors find new ways to work within this old genre.
Sarah Waters writes historical fiction featuring lesbian characters and richly detailed settings. To read her work is to be immersed in the time period in a sort of Dickensian fashion. Fingersmithis set in Waters’s signature Victorian London, while The Little Strangertakes place postwar in a Georgian mansion.
Sarah Perry knows the Gothic genre well; she a PhD in Creative Writing and the Gothic from the University of London. She brings this knowledge to bear in Melmoth, in which a strange letter found in a library leads to encounters between a translator and a shadowy figure who moves throughout history.
If you’re only familiar with Audrey Niffenegger through The Time Traveler’s Wife, you should know that her other writing tends to be just as good but much darker and weirder. Her Fearful Symmetry, a ghost story set near London’s famous Highgate Cemetery, is a perfect example.
Though the popularity of Gothic romantic suspense has waned, the genre still attracts authors who no longer feel the need to adhere quite as strictly to the original plot conventions. One such author is Simone St. James, whose novels (among them The Haunting of Maddy Clare, An Inquiry Into Love and Death, and Silence for the Dead), feature historical settings, creepy hospitals, psychics, and ghost hunting.
Kate Morton’s The Distant Hoursplays with the time-honored trope of a mysterious letter summoning the heroine to an old castle, where eccentric sisters share history related to her mother. The Forgotten Garden, meanwhile, is set in Cornwall and Australia and preoccupies itself with family secrets and the search for one’s true identity.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s Cemetery of Forgotten Books trilogy (The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game, and The Prisoner of Heaven) begins with one reader’s quest to discover why books by an author he loves are being systematically destroyed. Perhaps the blurb describes it best: “an epic story of murder, magic, madness and doomed love.”
Although contemporary Gothics often aren’t labeled explicitly as such, once you know the conventions, you find that they’re lurking on almost every bookshelf. As you can see, there’s plenty to choose from, and even more when you open up the criteria to include Gothics that blend more strongly with other genres, such as fantasy, or if you decide to explore Southern Gothic. But that’s a subject for another day…
In the meantime, steep a cup of your favorite tea and settle in for a dreary autumn of suitably atmospheric reading.
You know when you walk in a room and you stand there for a second and laugh cause you have no idea why you went in there? You’re talking to someone and you can’t think of that word, yeah you know, the one you say when you want to sound smart? It eventually comes back, right? What if it didn’t? What if that happened to you with every single thing in your daily life? What if it repeatedly happened and your doctor told you that it will only get worse and he can’t stop it?
I have the joy of meeting and spending time with some pretty great people through volunteering with a local hospice. Most of the patients I meet are older and have a variety of health issues. One very common health issue is Dementia/Alzheimer’s. It is not an easy disease to understand, and I feel grateful that most times the patients do not know what is happening to them and they do not suffer. One special lady, who has the symptoms of Dementia/ Alzheimer’s loves to do crafty things. I came across these styrofoam shapes that you push colored tissue paper into with a little plastic stick. She loved it and was very pleased upon completion. Although she no longer remembers where she has left her rainbow, and that we made it together, she does remember how to use the plastic stick. She smiles every time I pull the stick out of my bag for another project! Repetition for our brains, very important!
I am pretty biased and believe that nurses are smarter than doctors (two of my aunts are great nurses), but to help better understand from the doctor’s perspective there is Alzheimer’s Disease: The Complete Introduction by Dr. Judes Poirier and Dr. Serge Gauthier. This one has color photos and diagrams to help you better understand what happens to the brain and body as you go through all of the different stages. For a more hands on approach, I recommend Alzheimer’s Activities That Stimulate the Mind. I have found that books like these that are written by nurses are always on point and make you feel the love and time that was put into it. I will be putting these activities to good use. Emilia C. Bazan-Salazar, R.N., B.S.N., I, Thank you!
Children have a hard time understanding that just because they can’t see it happening, that our brains change. Also, as parents we want to protect our children from all the scary things that life throws at them. Faraway Grandpa written by Roberta Karim tells the story of Kathleen and the special bond she shares with her grandpa. Every summer she visits him and he always does the same things to make her smile. One summer, Grandpa forgets to do his shenanigans and even comes to live with Kathleen. She then figures out that when she sings their special song that the “clouds” will lift from Grandpa for just a few minutes and that’s where she can always find him. I am not a fan of telling children lies or sugar coating many things. The last thing you could want is your child realizing you lied to them. I believe that you should answer any and all questions that they have, but don’t give more details than necessary. Besides, they get bored fairly quickly!
Even adult children can sometimes have a hard time with this and need the comfort of each other to get through! The film Savages is about a dysfunctional family that must come together to help Dad (Philip Bosco) when he starts showing signs of dementia. Son (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and daughter (Laura Linney) place Dad in a nursing home and then care for him through his remaining time, while struggling with their own personal lives.
The family and caretakers are the ones who experience most of the emotional effects of Dementia/Alzheimer’s. It’s a difficult situation to be in when someone starts forgetting who you are and what is happening to them. It hurts, and it hurts a lot! I often think that because memory loss runs in my family, that I should make sure that my nearest and dearest understand my wishes, if this were to happen to us. It’s not typical table talk, but it is definitely an important conversation to have. All too often I come across a family who, when asked a question of this nature, sound the crickets, all look at each other, and wait for someone to answer. That’s not going to help when you can no longer make your own decisions and your family is arguing over what you would want. Let them know! Today!
The Day We Met by Rowan Coleman will give you a glimpse of what it might be like to start losing your memory. The main character, Claire, is suffering from Dementia/ Alzheimer’s. When she is lost, so are you. When she doesn’t understand, neither do you. It made me think about being in her place and what I would want my family to know if this started happening to us.
I do not know how it feels to be on the spousal end of this disease, and I hope that I never have to. Since I have been watching films and reading books on the subject, I at least have a glimpse of what it might be like. Away From Her, a Canadian film, starring Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent is based on Alice Munro’s short story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” The film won seven Genie Awards. Seven! The story is about a husband and wife who have lived over 40 years together. She has started to show signs of Alzheimer’s and moves into a facility that can care for her around the clock. Upon moving in, they cannot see each other for 30 days. In those 30 days, she forms a close bond with another resident and forgets who her husband is. You go through this with him, you feel lost and betrayed, and in the end, you also feel all the love he has!
I believe that this is one of the worst diseases ever. It’s a hunter that has no rules or regulations. There is no cure, and it slowly attacks and eats your brain. You cannot run and hide, it comes from within you! We must fight it head on!
Help me raise awareness! The state of Tennessee participates in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s. Held annually in more than 600 communities nationwide, Walk to End Alzheimer’s is the world’s largest event to raise awareness and funds for Alzheimer’s care, support and research. Hopefully, by the time you have read this, I have completed my 2 mile walk in Nashville and donated a few bucks to a worthy cause that affects my family and I. There are local walks in your area in the month of November. Put on your sneakers and get going!!