Play Me A Dirge, Matey…

A few years ago my folks were out on a garage sale tour and they came across an estate sale with a significant collection of books. Garage sales are fun on their own, but with the added incentive of books they are irresistible, to me at least. So I went along.

The collection was breaking up at a rapid pace, but before they disappeared I located part of a series of Time-Life books called The Seafarers. I ended up with eight volumes out of a set of 22.

Ever since high school when I read C.S. Forrester’s Captain Hornblower I have been curious about naval history. I’ve not sailed, but have had the chance to tour a replica of Captain Cook’s HM Bark Endeavour and my haul at the estate sale came as a boost to my curiosity.

Would you be interested in buying…

I remember commercials for Time-Life books when I was a kid, but I didn’t realize, until I got my hands on the nautical volumes, how detailed and fascinating they were. The illustrations are spectacular and the writing very approachable.

Collections of books like the ones sold by Time-Life take me back to the days of encyclopedia sets as well. My mom tells me childhood stories of curling up with a crunchy apple or wedge of cabbage and reading through a volume of the encyclopedia. I remember going through our own set and being fascinating by the pictures and the concise descriptions or explanations of various entries – mostly scientific.

The history of science

It wasn’t until my parents did some research that we learned the rocky relationship encyclopedias have had with history. Early on in the 18th century these compendiums of knowledge contained history as well as the burgeoning study of science and the natural world. This trend continued until the early 20th century, around WWI. At this point the history got dropped in favor of the multitude of scientific discoveries that were coming along at a rapid pace.

Our modern default setting is for science and scientific proof to back up even historical discoveries. Sometimes this “proof” is debatable, science itself not being a science, but an art and subject to interpretation. Human witness can get relegated to second place behind scientific substantiation in anthropological and archeological pursuits. Perhaps not always without cause, humans can be liars.

Meanwhile, I will continue to enjoy the pages of well-reasoned, carefully researched history and see if someday I can track down a few more volumes of The Seafarers.

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