Why You Need to Read History

Facts or Fiction?

History books have a bad reputation for being very dry and boring. Some actually are. Most of those writing history have done extensive research and base their writing on factual accounts. It is a joy for me to find a serious history book written by an author who has not only done research, but has the ability to express historical facts in ways that make it come alive through exceptional writing.

Fiction writers who have done their homework, can give us a pretty good sense of what historical events were like or how it might have felt to live through them. I very much enjoy historical fiction written by skilled writers who have done research and put forth the effort to make it historically accurate as well as compelling. Though main characters and story details may be imagined, they allow us to experience history through their eyes.

Why Reading History Matters

I am amazed and appalled at the lack of historical knowledge, especially among young people today. I realize that many of my generation slept through history classes, but at least we took history classes. So many seem to lack knowledge of basic historical events – when and where they occurred and primary people involved – let alone any understanding of the complex issues behind them. We seem set up to repeat serious mistakes of the past. Actually history has repeated itself in horrible ways. When will we learn from history? First we must learn history.

As someone who not only lived through the Cold War, but has read about communism and socialism, I find it unbelievable that so many young people actually want socialism. Why do they not get it? Maybe because they only read or listen to what we would have termed “propaganda” – the promises of utopia, equality and prosperity. History has shown us that these are illusions. Socialism and communism (one leads to the other) have always turned out badly.

I am also concerned about the lack of knowledge of the founding principles and documents of this country. After all that the early patriots sacrificed to establish this government and to defend it, some seem ready to throw it all away. Problems in America today do not exist because of our form of government, but they have become worse because we are straying from the principles upon which it was formed. We need to return to those principles, but first must learn them.

My History List

These are some of my favorite histories and historical fiction. These are books that made an impact on me. Your reactions may be different and that is okay. Some of these are classics recommended by many. Some I just happened upon and you may not have heard of, but they impressed me. Many of these have been made into movies that you probably have seen. I always recommend reading the book. Books give more detail, often the prose is beautifully written, and frankly, too often movie makers alter books to fit their own agendas.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. Some good ones may have slipped my mind for the moment and I hope to add more in time. They are kind of grouped, but in no particular order. Please feel free to mention your favorites in “Comments.”

Early American History

  • Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick
    I read this after I joined the General Society of Mayflower Descendants and was interested to learn more. Not only did it cover the migration to America and the early years here, but the interactions with Natives and the wars with them were very enlightening.
  • Young Washington by Peter Stark
    This book gives a good portrait of George Washington and how events during the French and Indian War influenced his life and future. It provides good background to understanding the roots of the Revolution.
  • Strange and Obscure Stories of the Revolutionary War by Tim Rowland
    This is an easy and often humorous read about a number of incidents during the Revolutionary War. If you think history is boring, read this.
  • Miracle in Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May to September 1787 Catherine Drinker Bowen
    This is an excellent book about the laborious process of writing the Constitution of the United States. It truly was a miracle that this group of strong willed and opinionated men were able to discuss and come to a workable compromise that has endured. (A process today’s lawmakers could learn from) It makes clear what the constitution was intended to do and what it intentionally did not address. The book includes the full text of the constitution and amendments for study.

Books about Slavery and the Civil War

  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe This book is a classic which should be required reading for everyone.
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs
  • Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero Bound for the Promised Land by Kate Clifford Larson
  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
    This is an excellent book about Abraham Lincoln and the political process of the time. We could use leaders like him now.
  • Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
    Many are familiar with the Movie, but the book is well worth the read.

Native American History

  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brow
  • Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, The Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure by Julie Flynn Silver

Into the 20th Century

  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
    I love Steinbeck’s writing and this classic picture of human dignity in horrible circumstances. It has also been made into a movie, but I recommend the book.
  • The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan
    This is a non-fiction work about the Dust Bowl and those who stayed and lived through it. The other side of the story presented in The Grapes of Wrath but featuring real people.

Books about World War II

  • The Hiding Place by Corrie Tenboom
  • Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally The movie was popular, but the book allows you to spend time pondering and processing.
  • The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
    This book is an enjoyable read, but it highlights serious issues of living in occupied territory and resisting a war.
  • Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand This is the moving true story of an American prisoner of war in Japan.
  • The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw
    This shares examples of character and values of those who lived through trying times.
  • Anne Frank Diary of a Young Girl The classic we all read in school, but maybe not so much anymore.

Books Dealing with Other 20th Century Issues in the World

  • The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjallan
    I just happened to find and read this book as we marked the Centennial of the events portrayed. I was amazed that not only do very few people today know anything about the Armenian genocide, but at the time it occurred, news of it was essentially buried because of the larger World War I. It makes me wonder if more people were aware, would such horrors have been repeated?
  • Shanghai Girls & Dreams of Joy by Lisa See
    I discovered Lisa See with her book On Gold Mountain which is basically her family history – a very interesting family history beginning with a Chinese immigrant who married an American.
    Shanghai Girls is fiction set in China and California about two sisters who become brides to paper sons of a Chinese immigrant in California. Dreams of Joy is the next generation sequel about the 19 year old daughter. Upon encountering radicals at an American University preaching the glories of socialism, she goes to China in 1957 to become part of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” into the “New Society”. Her mother heroically saves her from being one of the millions of Chinese who starved to death during this period of “prosperity.”
  • The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam
    I just happened upon this book, but found it compelling. It’s central character is a Chinese man running an English school in Saigon just prior to and during the Vietnam War. It overlaps the time period of See’s Dreams of Joy, which picture was still in my head when I read about this Headmaster sending his son to China. It gives a sense of the way Communism creeps in and takes over.
  • A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
    Set in India, this book reveals the injustice and cruelty of the caste system.
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns & The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
    These books provide some insight into the history and culture of Afghanistan which is helpful in understanding more recent events there.
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi This book not only gives a glimpse of life in Tehran during trying times but also reinforces the value of books.


Why Reading Books Matters

How many books did you read this year?

Disturbing Trend Number 1:

I have been disturbed and saddened to see data about how few people actually read books any more. It almost seems that if text won’t fit onto a small screen or contain 150 characters or less, it is not worth the effort. This has been somewhat of a frustration with blogging. I wonder how many people actually take the two to five minutes to read through an entire blog post.

The media has figured this out, of course. They are expert at putting the main – and usually biased – message into explosive headlines. Then they hide critical countering facts or information way down in the article. They know that most “readers” scan the headlines, but won’t read through an entire article, especially online. I find most of the “comments” on social media do not indicate that those commenting have really read the article. They are simply reacting to the headline.

So, if very few people are reading short news or human interest articles on social media, how many are reading real books – not necessarily just the physical paper kind, but digital as well?

Disturbing Trend Number 2:

There is a growing trend toward censoring and banning books – even classics written long ago – because they offend new found social sensibilities or don’t conform to shifting standards or political correctness. This is really scary on many levels, some of which I will discuss below.

Disturbing Trend Number 3:

Many think that going to see a movie version is better than reading the book. Movies give us someone’s visual, and often subjective interpretation of a book. It is somewhat disturbing that everyone who watches, passively accepts that particular interpretation, which may actually be very different than the author’s original intent. Much of the original message often gets lost in the interpretation.

We like movies because they incorporate visual and sound along with a story. They are relatively short. We watch, then we leave and go on to some other activity. Some movies have an emotional impact which lingers with us, or might cause us to think for a while. But many movies are very forget-able. They serve their purpose as passive, short term entertainment.

The Case for Books:

There is something special about reading a book. Books take longer and involve more personal effort than watching movies. There is mental effort involved in interpreting symbols -words – on a page into thoughts, ideas and images. We need to understand the literal meaning of words for the writing to make sense, but there are deeper ideas and meanings which often require some more serious mental consideration.

Though it is possible to read some books in one setting – I have done that with a few short ones – most require taking breaks. We read for a while, then set the book down to do other things. But our mind does not always let it go. Often, especially with compelling narratives, I find myself thinking about the book while doing other activities. I mull over why characters did what they did and wonder what will they do next. I put myself in the place of characters and wonder how I might have handled situations differently. I try to figure out mysteries. I replay certain scenes in my mind trying to grasp all the details. My mind lingers in the setting of the book.

Often I look at maps in between reading to get a better idea of where the setting is and the proximity of other places mentioned. Sometimes I google to learn more about things featured in the book.

There is something magical about reading books by skilled authors. I think there are gifts in the use of words that some people have been given. These gifted people combine words in a way that can paint a visual picture in your mind of a place unfamiliar to you, yet it becomes familiar through the description. This allows us to see another place as real, even if it only exists in the imagination of the author.

Books also transport us through history. We all remember dry, boring history books simply stating facts. But a skilled author can place us in that setting, helping us feel what it might have been like to experience those events.

Good authors create or describe characters in a way that allows us to get to know them. We can visualize what they look like and how they move and interact with other. Good characters are like real people. They are complicated, basically good but flawed. Some we do not like, but can see their humanity and possibly what events and circumstances caused them to behave badly. Some characters become like friends or family. We see in them characteristics of those we know – maybe even ourselves. We become invested in their actions.

Good books are about good stories told in a compelling way. They do not simply entertain, they also teach. Through good stories we can learn things about human nature, about ourselves, about what things in life really matter. I think all good stories revolve around a basic conflict between good and evil – what life is really all about.

Why Reading Books Matters

People in our world today are increasingly living within “bubbles”. There is a growing tendency to associate only with people who are like us – who think like us, believe like us, behave like us. This reinforces our world view as THE only, or at least THE CORRECT world view. Then those who have conflicting world views or beliefs become “others”. They are not only looked down on as uninformed, unenlightened or wrong, but become seen as inherently bad, as enemies to “our truth”, or even evil.

To be socially accepted, others must accept certain views and beliefs. If they don’t, then we are free to criticize, ostracize, silence them, persecute and hate them. This is scary stuff. It leads to even scarier stuff. We we might see this coming if we have read books from and about the past which show this process.

Books can be an antidote to “bubble thinking”. When we read a novel or well written history or biography, we have an opportunity to get outside our narrow world view. We see other perspectives. We get a sense of circumstances and influences of other times and places and cultures and can see the behavior of others in that context without judging them by our current standards. We get a peek into someone else’s head, into ways of thinking that may be different than ours. We can then see different viewpoints as just different – not necessarily right or wrong.

We might even have to question and examine our own beliefs. One of the most important questions we can ever ask ourselves is “could I be wrong?”  We may eventually conclude that we are right after all, or at least feel secure in our view. But through this process, we might be able to see others as not totally wrong after all. We might see some truth in things we had not previously considered.

Reading books is a gateway to learning about things formerly foreign to us. Books allow us to experience places we might never be able to visit and return to some familiar ones. We can learn about occupations, hobbies, and activities that we have not personally experienced. We might be inspired to learn more about something because a book has peaked our interest.

I think reading good books makes us better people – more human and more compassionate. Reading can expand not only our imaginations and our intellect, but also our hearts.

A Challenge

So my challenge for 2019 is to read good books. If you have not read one for a while, just start. If you like to read, seek out some new books or re-read old favorites. Just read more. I will suggest some of my favorites in future posts – who knows, maybe even do book reviews. Let’s see where 2019 will take us.

Wisdom

wisdom

This world is so badly in need of wise men and women. My study of King Solomon for a Sunday School lesson led to much pondering about wisdom – what it is, how to acquire it, and the mystery about the lack of wisdom in our world.

wisdom of Solomon

Solomon’s wisdom – see 1 Kings 4:29-34

Solomon’s wisdom was a gift from God. God’s love is unconditional, but His gifts come with conditions. To have a gift of the spirit, one must be in a position to be sensitive and receptive to the spirit. Solomon’s gift came with several “ifs”, cautioning that he would lose it if he turned from God and from following His laws.

What is Wisdom?

Dictionary definitions of wisdom include learning & knowledge, but wisdom is in the use of knowledge – the power of judging rightly and following the soundest course of action. Wisdom begins with intellect, learning and knowledge, but builds on that with understanding and insight. It can come through experience as well as study, yet some may have vast experience yet still not get it.

Wisdom requires discernment – the ability to discern truth from error, for real wisdom is based on truth. It also involves the ability to know what things are of most importance and lasting value.

Solomon himself wrote many wise Proverbs (see Proverbs 1-9), but his wisdom was not purely intellectual. True wisdom is reflected in action.

Wisdom differs from being clever or cunning (see 3 Nephi 21:10), because those tend to be deceptive and self-serving. Wisdom is honest and true and benefits all.

Foolish and Vain

Frequently in the scriptures I see the terms “foolish and vain” paired together. (See Romans 1:21Titus 3:92 Nephi 28 ; Alma 39:11; Helaman 12:4Helaman 16:22;  We think of foolishness as the opposite of wisdom. Why is “vain” paired with foolish? What is foolish about vanity or vain things?

We think of vanity as being proud and self-serving. A vain person is conceited with an excessively and possibly unrealistic regard for self. There is something false or deceitful about vanity.

Definitions of vain also include things of no real value or significance, things lacking substance, anything empty, worthless, fruitless. Things that have an appearance of value or desirability, but no real substance. You might think of vain as a pretty puffed up outer shell that is hollow within.

In this sense the two definitions actually merge, as someone who is vain in the sense of being proud actually may have no real depth of character under a boastful exterior. The vain are all show with little substance.

There is vanity in thinking you are wise. Thinking one knows and understands already leads to pride and a resistance to learning, especially from the source of true wisdom. (

O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish. (2 Nephi 9:28; see also Proverbs 3:5-7)

Wise Judgement

To be vain is foolish – to put undue importance on things of little significance. Scriptures point out the opposite “plain and precious” indicating that things of most value are more plain than flashy. Wisdom can discern between things of lasting value and those of little worth and make judgments and decisions based on those most worthwhile.

Just as it is foolish to choose or pursue vain things, it is also foolish to base judgement on things of no real value. What could be more foolish than spending a lifetime acquiring stuff, having fun and seeking people’s approval? Yet, such superficial and insignificant, though outwardly appearing fashionable or popular trends are what much of the world bases judgement on.

Wise judgement is based on sound principles and unchanging truth. It requires an understanding of truth. It is based on standards that have stood through time and have been tested and proven.

The Mystery/Paradox

The Apostle Paul contrasted the wisdom of the world with the wisdom of God.

And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power:
That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.
Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought:
But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: (1 Corinthians 2:4-7; see also 1 Corinthians 1:20-31)

The wisdom of the world is really foolish and vain. Those who are wise in their own eyes are really fools. Fools mock. The world mocks faith in God as foolishness, yet the wisdom of the world is based on vain things, and is really foolish.

The path to true wisdom is the plain and precious truths of the gospel and the Spirit which enlightens understanding. The simple and pure faith in Christ, which the world considers silly or foolish, is really the path to true wisdom. This is the great paradox.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a wise judge, put it this way:

“God assumed from the beginning that the wise of the world would view Christians as fools . . . and He has not been disappointed. Devout Christians are destined to be regarded as fools in modern society. We are fools for Christ’s sake. We must pray for courage to endure the scorn of the sophisticated world. If I have brought any message today, it is this: Have the courage to have your wisdom regarded as stupidity. Be fools for Christ. And have the courage to suffer the contempt of the sophisticated world.”

Where to Find Wisdom

The greatest wisdom comes from the source of all wisdom. James advised “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God” (James 1:5)

Gordon B. Hinckley said:

We need not look far in the world to know that “the wisdom of the wise has perished and that the understanding of the prudent has come to naught.” That wisdom for which the would should seek is the wisdom which comes from God. The only understanding that will save the world is divine understanding. (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, 500)

O be wise; what can I say more?

My Truth, Your Truth, or THE TRUTH

My Truth?

I find myself cringing when I hear the phrase “speak my truth”.

Truth is something that exists – independent of any person. One cannot “own” truth, let alone define their “personal truth”. How can several people have different or conflicting truths and they all be true?

One can share their unique experience – maybe that is what they really mean? One can relate their particular perspective of something, which may be very different than mine. Psychotic people may be dealing with altered reality, but their perception does not change what is true.

Someone cannot create their own truth. And certainly no one should be able to force others to accept, validate or conform to a particular independently defined truth.

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Clarity

 

We most often think of clarity in relation to sensory perception. How clearly can we see or hear? It is a measure of how accurately we are perceiving our world. Clarity is also critical to understanding and discerning truth.

Sensory Clarity and Impediments

Definitions of clarity and clear are often expressed in opposite terms – as freedom from or an absence of things that might hinder or impede clarity and therefore interfere with our ability to perceive and understand.

Some things that affect clarity involve conditions outside of ourselves, some involve inherent abilities which may be greater or lesser for different individuals or vary within individuals at different times or circumstances, and some require some effort on our part.

Hearing clearly can be difficult with external factors such as low volume, a weak signal or interference with whatever is sending a message. Background noise or multiple sounds and voices add confusion. With age or other conditions, the mechanics of the ear or connections with the brain reduce the ability to hear clearly. Hearing clearly also requires an ability to focus – to filter out what is unnecessary and tune in to what is significant. This ability can be affected by physical factors or conditions, but largely it requires personal effort and attention to focus, filter and concentrate.

When it comes to sight, it is easy to see how pollutants, clouds or fog effect clarity of vision.  Light cannot be overemphasized as an influence of clarity. Some impurities are less noticeable, especially as we become accustomed to them. Sometimes we look through dirty windows or lenses so often that we do not realize until they are cleaned how much we have been missing. We literally ” see through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Vision varies among people, but clarity can be improved by looking through corrective lenses. They sharpen our focus and can eliminate distortions. Magnification can improve clarity. It not only makes things appear larger, but makes details become more apparent. Seeing clearly also requires attention and focus through our own efforts. We miss so much because we do not really look.

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Awareness, Insight and Impaired Brains

I like to believe that there is some purpose for the things we go through in life. As I find myself now surrounded by people I love, who for different reasons and with some variety in expression, have impaired mental functions, I am wondering what it is I am supposed to be learning from this. Of course, there is the obvious patience, of which much more is required than I naturally have, along with tolerance and compassion. You would think that one impaired brain would be sufficient to teach me, but apparently I am in need of more.

Sometimes I wish for more associations with intelligent, educated people with which to have deep conversations and share great insights. I find myself pondering about how the brain works, and sometimes doesn’t work, and how that relates to the human quest to learn and understand. So I will share some of my “insights” about things like insight and understanding.

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Understanding

“And with all thy getting get understanding” (Proverbs 4:7)

I have tried to ask questions with a sincere intent to understand other people’s perspective and reasoning on issues. I have generally been disappointed by the answers I have received, especially from liberals. In response, I have received slogans, sound bites, quotes, memes, twitter hashtags, or given a link to some article by a leftist “expert” or commentator. But I rarely receive any real explanation of that person’s own understanding of a position and the reasoning behind their personal beliefs. I have also not seen much in the way of attempting to understand an opposing position – particularly ones that I have voiced. I have received condescending comments that imply that I don’t understand the facts, that I have been misled or have been listening to false ideas, but no indication that those commenting have even read or listened to arguments from the other side with anything resembling an open mind. I am sure that this happens from both sides, but I have noticed a more “haughty” attitude from liberals and a tendency for them to point out that the religious accept what they are told without question, though they seem to be doing the same thing in echoing standard liberal positions without explanation. The questioning I have received when I have voiced an opinion has felt like an attempt to tear down my beliefs or imply that I am stupid or uninformed, rather than any desire to gain an understanding of how I arrived to my conclusions.

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Reacting to Criticism

Being criticized may not be such a bad thing, if we take time to reflect on our own reaction and our reasoning.

At a few times during recent months, I have found myself feeling some familiar but unpleasant feelings. This happened when comments or criticism “hit a nerve” or triggered a defensive reaction. Usually we just react, but I forced myself to stop and think about why. Why did that comment from that person cause such a strong emotional reaction? No one really likes to hear criticism, but there are different kinds of criticism. It is one thing to have a mistake pointed out. Errors can be corrected, often without major damage to the ego. But often, as I think in these cases, the criticism is not so much about what was done or said, but includes an element of shame. There is some inference (maybe intended, but also possibly just perceived) of judgement associated with it – an underlying message that we are somehow a bad person, an idiot, or a fool. The feeling is that we are being personally attacked. The feelings may be more intense when the giver of the message is someone we feel has no position of authority or superiority to judge us. “How dare they” we think and want to strike back. We may also feel a need to defend ourselves and our position.

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