History written not by historians

9 Jan

A few days ago I finished the two books by Ian Frazier, one the essays about living in New York, and the other about the Great Plains. I enjoyed both of them, a lot. So much so that I interlibrary loaned another one of his books, on traveling through Siberia. It’s his newest, came out in 2010. Siberia, you say? How interesting is that? Well, if it’s anything like his book on the Great Plains, it will be interesting indeed.

I’ve never been to the Great Plains. I’ve never, in fact, been further west than Michigan, where I spent three and a half years going to college. My whole life is rooted in the East, in New York and more specifically, the city of Buffalo. When Frazier wrote the book on the plains, he moved from New York City to Montana for three years, where he researched extensively, both through reading and through direct experience, and then wrote. One can imagine how immediate and stark a contrast it was moving from a dense city to open, rural country. And then, after three years, how strange to move back to the city where the smoke and sounds surely stung.

The Great Plains are in some areas, desert, and in others, vast scrubland where the wind sweeps clear everything in its path and the sun scorches the earth to cracking. But there are other areas, pierced by mountains and cut through with rushing rivers, surrounded by lush pine. There are places unparalleled in the East, places like Yellowstone, on a scale unimaginable until seen. Places where nature puts man in his place, or at least should. These are the places where the many plains tribes of Native Americans roamed free for hundreds of years, setting up camp and then moving according to the seasons, and any rancher has only to walk a few miles on his property until finding a bit or a piece of their left-over living. It’s the place where Crazy Horse grew from a boy into a man and the home of the people, and land, he would defend until death, when captured and killed by the U.S. Army. It is a place in which legend has made its home, at least in the American consciousness. And I would like very much to see it some day.

I am now reading a book by Bill Bryson on the history of the home, in particular, of private life. Bryson is the author of the hilariously book, “A Walk in the Woods,” wildly popular, about his sojourn along the Appalachian trail. Since then, he’s tackled such immense projects as “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” about, basically, the history of the world, which I believe won some kind of prestigious book award. His most recent book, “At Home,” is his longest work and the one I’m now reading.

Bryson lives in an old English rectory in a rural part of England. The premise of the book is that anything significant that’s every happened in the world ends up in our homes. History, in short, lies not outside the home but inside. Which is why he set out to write its history. Each room in the house is fleshed out in a chapter, beginning with the hall way, a seemingly useless area now in the house, the place where hats and coats are hung and feetwiped. In the middle ages, this was the most important place in the house for it was, in effect, the house. The “hall” was the house, the place where people cooked, ate and slept, sort of like an Indian wigwam. The word hall eventually took two meanings. It kept it’s original meaning, in that it was somewhere very important. For example, “Carnegie Hall.” It also means that little space in our homes today where we enter for a short while before moving to more important spaces. Bryson manages to make us see anew the things we use every day, such as salt and pepper shakers and even forks, in the context of their often times quirky history. Rarely do I enjoy history written by historians. History written by Bryson, or Frazier, however, is interesting history indeed.


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