Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Lynn Hunt's "History: Why It Matters"

Lynn Hunt is Distinguished Research Professor at UCLA and the author of numerous popular and scholarly history books.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, History: Why it Matters, and reported the following:
Since History: Why It Matters is very short (115 pages of text), page 99 comes near the end, in a chapter titled “History’s Future.” The page makes two key points and makes them efficiently, which is, I hope, one of the best characteristics of this book. At this moment in the final chapter, I am discussing the question of time and history. History is obviously about time, right? Not as much as you might think. Writers of history tend to take time for granted, which means that they take the secularization of time for granted. History is about people acting in the profane world. Yet the sacred has not disappeared. It has migrated, for example, from the idea found in many cultures that rulers are rulers by divine right (they are chosen by a god or gods) to the idea that the nation itself is sacred. This is why history textbooks and historical monuments have aroused such controversy; tearing them down, whether literally or figuratively, seems to some people like sacrilege, a violation of the sacred, whether it’s the nation or a cause. My second point, also about time, concerns the recent effort among historians to push history writing much further back in time. When history emerged as a university discipline in the 19th century, scholars assumed that history began with the advent of writing, about 3500-3000 BCE. This conveniently matched the traditional Biblical chronology which held that the world was created sometime around 4000 BCE. After the findings of geology in the 1800s extended the timeline much further back (now billions of years back), historians did not follow. By linking history to writing, they kept the old chronology. Historians are not going to turn into archaeologists or anthropologists but more attention to this longer timeline gives us a different perspective on the past. I argued, consequently, that history needs all kinds of timelines, from the longest to the shortest, in order to make sense of the past. It all depends on the question posed. These are just two of the ways in which history matters and in which our notion of history is changing.
Learn more about Lynn Hunt and Why History Matters.

The Page 99 Test: Writing History in the Global Era.

Writers Read: Lynn Hunt.

--Marshal Zeringue