Gateways to History: Getting Started

What makes a person like history?

Is it just a quirk of personality that leads them to be insatiably curious about the past?

Is it a family member who shared his or her own love of history?

Is it just a coincidence of factors: good books, great teachers, a need to know?

All of these things can contribute to the creation of an avid historian, but what if you didn’t have the benefit of such circumstances – are you doomed to dislike history?

Not at all! There are other gateways to history and finding yours is the challenge!

Image: Amanda Stiver

Image: Amanda Stiver

More than one way to… study history

History is stereotypically fed to students via the textbook and a class lecture. A good textbook can spur an interest in students, but more importantly a good teacher can spur a lifelong love of the subject.

I had two particularly memorable high school history teachers. They each had a different approach to teaching, but were equally successful.

One teacher taught by lecture. The good thing was that he was one of the best lecturers I have ever heard. He gave us clear instructions from the start, if you want to get a good score on the Advanced Placement U.S. history test at the end of the year, then read the textbook twice. His expectation that we would do our reading and come to class with a clue about the day’s subject freed him up to add extra material from his vast store of historic knowledge during the lecture. He could tell a great story.

The other teacher had a different approach, but was also a gifted storyteller. She was a multi-media historian. We watched videos, read textbooks, read primary source excerpts, viewed art history slides and maps, did re-enactments, had class discussions, and completed writing assignments. She illustrated to me the importance of a variety of sources and approaches that make the subject vibrant and alive!

I had other great teachers, but I think this makes clear that the best gateway to a love of history is a fantastic teacher.

Find your gate, take the path

If you don’t like history because you had bad teachers, all is not lost. Try this: go watch a movie that has an historic setting or read an historical novel. How many people who went to see 300 or Braveheart consciously thought they were going to study history – surely not many.

Movies and historical fiction aren’t perfect, but they are a kind of gateway. Ideally they should spur a curiosity into an area of history that draws you to your local library and a good book on the subject. They are highly interpretive, so by all means, if something sounds far-fetched in a book or movie – go prove the author or directors wrong by researching the subject yourself.

Let a productive curiosity be your gateway into history. Maybe you want to know more about family genealogy – research the era in which your relatives immigrated! Maybe the history of a national or religious holiday has always made you wonder about its origins – go find out! Perhaps you read a short article that was so well written it made you want to know more.

Best of all, if you are planning a trip, don’t leave until you have at least one book under your belt about the area you are going to visit. When you get there, go see some of the places you read about, make the story come alive.

Once you cross the threshold, keep your curiosity alive. Make it a challenge to find the thread that connects each historical era or subject you study or come across. Or my personal favorite, when you’re at the store and you get the total cost of your purchases, take four of the digits and try to remember what happened in that year in history. If you can’t think of anything, go home and use a search engine to find out!

Take the plunge, it’s more exciting that you ever imagined!

Read Me A Little History…

Read aloud. Or better yet, listen to someone else read aloud. Really, try it!

Sound a little too dramatic? Seems kind of weird, maybe, because we don’t do that kind of think anymore. Or do we?

Have you ever watched a news anchor talk at you? They aren’t gabbing from memory – they’re reading aloud! Yep, from that teleprompter screen right next to the camera!

Guess who else reads aloud? Right – politicians. Teleprompters being the modern default, but some still use good old note cards.

Whatever the case, they are all reading aloud. We do a lot of reading these days, the Internet has made that a necessity, and so we don’t often take the time to read out loud from a book. However, back before moving pictures, radio, television, and Internet folks regularly read to each other.

Tell me a story, read me a book

On a cold winter evening around the fireplace of a rough log cabin, by the light of homemade candles, settlers would read out loud from the Bible, maybe Plutarch’s Lives (thank you Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), or perhaps a collection of Shakespeare. They didn’t have many books, but what they had, they read.

It was entertainment and education. Poetry was read aloud (sometimes from memory) as were plays, works of fiction, works of history, and religious works. It was a shared experience.

If you read aloud often enough, you begin to understand written works in a different way. Try reading the Bible silently – zoom through a few verses in the historical books of Chronicles or Kings – kind of dull, you say?

Okay, change tack, read aloud as if you are narrating a Cecil B. DeMille production of epic biblical proportions! Make sure that your audience, real or imagined, can understand each word and that the transitions from action to description are clear. Suddenly it isn’t so dull! Try the same thing with Jane Austen – you’ll be amazed at how her works come to life!

Reading aloud is an art form and a connection to the historic past. Back in the days of limited literacy those who could read aloud did so that others would have a chance to hear whatever it was they were reading. It was the default mode of literacy for many centuries until fairly recently.

Try it and you’ll find that a simple activity like this is a fun trip to the historical past.

Every little piece of history…

I think there is a misconception about history. That you have to slog through a massive tome on the more esoteric details of Early Modern Germany, or whatever, in order to really grasp history.

If you get a kick out of Early Modern Germany, then great, enjoy, and there are some of us who do. However, in order to develop a working knowledge of history you really just need a good, solid curiosity and a few resources.

I personally will slog through the heavy volumes from time to time, but I also like a good documentary. Usually the fare of PBS, the BBC, and the History Channel, documentaries are a great framework from which to build a knowledge of history.

Why documentaries?

I like them especially for a couple of reasons. First, they are visual and visual people need to see something. Drawing word pictures in your mind from a book is fine, but to understand an historical event it helps if you can take a gander at the actual surroundings where it took place.

Secondly, a good documentary can help you overview a topic because no matter how detailed or specific the subject is, producers assume the audience will initially know nothing about whatever it is they are covering. Say you are doing a show on Hitler’s advance into Russia – most people know something about WWII, but generally the writers and producers will give a short overview of the war at the start.

This is like Cliffs Notes for history novices – a quick review or introduction that helps you wrap your mind around the topic and secure the details in the chronology of history.

Thirdly, a great presenter can make history come alive.


Okay, now for the downside – documentaries will have a bias. You may agree with it, you may not. If you don’t, don’t watch it or watch it with reservations – there may be some interesting facts still to be gleaned.

Finally, just like a great presenter can make a great documentary, a really crummy presenter can bore you to tears – find the good ones, usually by trial and error.,, and the like make history videos readily available, as do libraries. Search them out and add one to your regular rotation of entertainment.

Every little piece of history is one more part of the puzzle. One more fact, event or personality that helps us understand what mankind has done and will do. Put on your Indiana Jones fedora, sling your bull-whip over your shoulder and get exploring!