Exploring Gateways to History: The Used Bookshop

Stepping into a previously unexplored used bookstore for the first time is akin to stumbling on that long lost tomb of King Whoever with the certain knowledge that inside are more artifacts of priceless historical value than you can shake a stick at. It is a place ripe with undiscovered adventures, knowledge, and surprises. It’s also addictive, so explore at your own risk, you may never find your way out!

Maybe the Indiana Jones-esque archeological connection is a bit much, but not far off. As a gateway into history (which you can read about in a previous post) used bookstores are an unmined field waiting to be excavated. Any bookstore can do the job, but used bookstores offer the advantage of old books, books out of print, and rare volumes along with the mundane. All of these are really, the fodder of history as they shed light upon a viewpoint that encapsulates the outlook and perspective of its time.

Old books are a slice of history, just as archeologists sometimes create a shaft in order to see what pieces of history are beneath their feet at a dig site, so too, is the experience of flipping through a book from fifty, sixty, or a hundred years ago. We see what people fed on, their thoughts, their concerns, their solutions for their time. These all inform the present, by the way, since those problems and solutions have become our own.

A gateway to history is something that intrigues us into wanting to know more about the past, to take a little time to study and appreciate all that came before us and to seek to learn from those successes and mistakes, problems, and stories. For some a gateway is a good biography or autobiography of an historical personage (a favorite approach of mine) since you get a compelling human story along with all kinds of fascinating historical tidbits about their time and place. Others enjoy a good historical film, with the caveat that you know the history in the film will most often be “adapted”, which means, changed, to make a spiffy or more exciting film. Sometimes a fun documentary will draw you in and make you want to know more. Maps of different eras bring up questions that need answers. Photographs of famous events or people strike up a curiosity for some.

There are many gateways into history, and as I crept carefully down the dimly lit, rather tight quarters of the little local bookshop the other day, I was struck again at the excitement and breathless sense of exploration that can emerge when you find a gateway and get set to explore. I found books that I was looking for, some that I already had, many that I had never heard of, and a few that I will have to go back again and read. I may not be able to buy them all, but knowing that little place is there to explore will rescue many a rainy day in the future!

Keep thinking history! Keep exploring!

– Amanda Stiver

EXPERIENCE HISTORY: If you are in the Massillon, Ohio area be sure to stop by the local used bookstore…

The Village Bookshelf  — 746 Amherst NE, Massillon, OH 44646

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The Window of History

window

Image: morguefile.com/hamper

Sitting in my office I have a great view of the woods. I can see birds, cats, deer, my neighbors, lush deciduous trees, the change of seasons and the occasional fox or raccoon. My view out the window is never the same twice. It can be similar, but never an exact copy. A leaf moves, the clouds are different, the dappling of sunshine through leaves changes, and different creatures troll the yard.

I never get tired of peering out that window to see what’s below. Such variety is refreshing and I often turn to look out when I get filled to saturation with staring at the computer.

Window of history

In the same way I never get tired of peering through the window of history. Okay, sometimes I do get tired of the same historical subject. So I solve the problem, I rotate subjects. On the whole, though, I don’t get tired of history. I find that a trip back in time via a well written history book helps me to see the present more clearly.

According to the StrengthsFinder program this is a particular trait called “Context.” StrengthsFinder is a workplace personality testing program that helps users find out how to use their strengths in connection with others.

Context is the use of a knowledge of history to see how that past shapes people and events. The ultimate goal being to anticipate what may happen in the future. According to StrengthsFinder it is also a way of relating to other people by empathizing with how they came to be the way they are.

Thus history becomes a window into not only the past, but also the future.

Back to the future!

I have been on a recent stroll through the boulevard of history, peering into various centuries and cultures as I go. It’s really a form of historical tourism, only you learn stuff and don’t pay as much as you would for a third-rate hotel room assigned to you because of over-booking.

Since the beginning of the year I’ve been to ancient Greece, the American Civil War era, the Revolutionary War era, and I’m just beginning a look into the history of the City of Jerusalem. Each book is a window, allowing me to see into the past with an eye open to the potential of what may come in the future.

What have I learned?

People haven’t really changed much despite centuries and millennia of existence. The window dressing may be different, but human motivation, greed, lust, anger, jealousy… are still the same and they still are at the crux of what turns the tide of world events.

So what window of history will you peer through today? What will you see and how will it affect your understanding of the present and the future?

Keep thinking history!

– Amanda Stiver

The Boundaries of History: Mountains

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

I’m watching a storm break over the Bitterroot Mountains. It’s a spectacular show of grays, blues, greens, and a touch of white off and on. Almost as spectacular as the sunset I watched over the same mountains a few days later. I live in the Midwest in a house among grove of trees and I rarely get to see a solid sunset, just a tint now and then, so watching the mountain version on my visit to Montana was worth the wait.

Mountains. What can I say about them? They are solid, craggy, and looming. They get in the way, they make people go around them and occasionally, they spew lava and pyroclastic muck.

They also make history. For without mountains, the conflicts, borders, traditions, and cultures of our human history would be something completely different. If it were plains all the way around, history would probably look like a glorified game on a chessboard.

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

Kings and their armies would charge across and gain a few miles, and then the opponent would charge over and take them back. Like an endless replay of the trenches of World War One. It takes a lot of manpower and materiel to gain and hold an indefensible flat space. It’s harder to take a mountain fortress, but easier to hold it.

Mountains have shaped us. Mountains and rivers and plains and valleys and oceans. They still shape us.

“And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings,…”

Food for thought.

Keep thinking history.

– Amanda Stiver

Wall Drug: An American Experience

I’m back in one of those tourist haunts that helps define the geography of my life. That sounds a lot more romantic than it is. I’m in Wall, South Dakota, at Wall Drug, a strip of western themed tourist trap that is a true tribute to the effectiveness of billboard advertising.

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

When Ted Hustead and his wife moved to the town of Wall to operate their drugstore back in the 1930’s, they latched onto the idea of using billboards to advertise their wares to weary and thirsty passing tourists. If you have ever taken Interstate 90 across the state of South Dakota, you know what I’m talking about. You can establish your relative location in the state by the sheer number of “Wall Drug” billboards that stack up in herds along the freeway.

Selling the goods

The funny thing about it is that it actually works. After 1,200 miles of seeing Wall Drug signs, people become, quite naturally, curious. Even people like me who have driven these roads to see family so many times I can watch the scenery (or sometimes lack thereof) pass through my visual memory with my eyes closed. Familiarly provides no immunity to the lure of Wall.

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

I think this is because Wall Drug, despite all the tourist adverts and schtick, provides things that tourists naturally crave – restrooms and cold liquids and ice cream. That and a nice bookstore and some quality western art. It also provides the myth of the west, with wooden cowboys and gamblers lurking in the halls of the indoor street. The complex has grown over the years, but the core is comfortingly familiar.

My last visit was 15 years ago, and by and large it remains the same. Families roaming the halls, ice cream in one hand, camera in the other. People taking a pit stop before continuing on to Mt. Rushmore or the Badlands. Just as I did on my visit years ago I bought a book, a definite step up from my initial visit when I was small and craved such sundries as cute little dolls dressed as western characters.

Questions raised

There is something plaintive, too, about a place like Wall. It raises questions: How long will tourism last in a tough economy? How long will we even recognize the quaintness of such a place? What does the future hold for a country whose younger generations know only a caricature of the history of the American West?

(Image: Amanda Stiver)

Maybe part of the answer is in that history of the peoples whose collective experiences made the West great. Where ideals of hard work, faith and justice, side by side with hardship and struggle fill in the spaces of the Western Myth of gamblers, claim jumpers, and outlaws.

If you’re in South Dakota and need a cool drink on your parched journey, stop at Wall and contemplate these questions and maybe you’ll be the one to find the answer.

– Amanda Stiver

Book Me: Keeping History Real

This scowl could only be saying, “Interpret history for yourself!” (Image: Morguefile.com)

Some days history comes alive and some days it stays comatose. Why is that? Why does one subject or exhibit or picture, etc, spur a curiosity in the past and another makes voluntary dental work sound like fun?

I had one of these moments at an interpretive center the other day. I can’t call it a museum because museums tend to emphasize collections of things as is, without intensive interpretation.

This location wasn’t bad, but there were a lot of ambient battle noise recordings that could have been a couple of decibels lower. That coupled with an audio playback of each written display in tight quarters resulted in a cacophony that made me want to leave rather than immerse myself in history.

On the other hand, it might have been me because I was tired out from a long couple of days of filming, so I wasn’t in a very receptive mood. However, on the road home as I read the short pamphlet about Fort Necessity in southwestern Pennsylvania I really got into the subject. Who knew that a multi-thousand dollar interpretive center would fail to inspire where a 50 plus cent sheet of folded paper with a few paragraphs would?

This is the dichotomy of history and of the use of interpretive centers, which are more and more replacing old style museums.

Is interpreting history wise? Should not each one of us have a chance to examine the facts unimpeded and come to our own conclusions?

What if the bias of the interpretive center is wrong? Are you really teaching history or are you perpetuating an opinion?

Probably both. We must interpret, and any teacher of history, no matter how much they try to avoid it, is interpreting the subject via their own personal bias to their students. That’s part of being human.

Developing a personal curiosity into history can help each of us interpret the facts on our own. If an exhibit fails to enthrall you then dig into some books on the subject. You might find the angle that eluded you and develop a whole new area of interest.

Keep history real!

Amanda Stiver

Fun at Fort Ancient

In southern Ohio, just north of the city of Cincinnati is a fort that is technically not a fort, but that might have been a fortified settlement, but we don’t know for sure.

The pink shape on the left shows the outline of the Fort Ancient earthworks.

Welcome to the world of mound culture history. There is so much that is unknown about the culture of the builders of these earthen mounds that even authorities on the subject have to qualify almost everything they say. We do know that these mounded earthen structures were carefully constructed by carrying soil in woven buckets to each site. And the sites themselves are scattered from Wisconsin to Louisiana, but particularly in Ohio

The earthen mounds of Fort Ancient, which is located near Oregonia, Ohio, were built between 1 and 200 A.D. according to the handy posters located on the grounds of the state park. They were built and inhabited by the Adena culture until about 500-600 A.D. (if memory serves). At this point their culture seems to have faded away.

More is known about the Native American cultures that also revere the earthworks, but their exact relationship to the original builders is still clouded. A Native American village in the area dates from 1,000-1,200 A.D. and American Indian settlements in the area continued from then on until the well past the arrival of European explorers.

Field trip

Touring the grounds of Fort Ancient was instructive and illustrated to me the immense size of the earthworks complex. The mounded earthen hills themselves range in height from about 6-7 feet tall to 20+ feet or more.

What the area was used for is another one of those unsolved mysteries. Archeological digs are in progress to help understand more about the area and its purpose. It could have been important for a number of reasons. The digs hope to prove that as a spiritual center there is evidence of an astronomical connection to the location. It might have been a setting for social or religious rituals. Perhaps a burial site or even a settlement, or maybe all of these combined.

Other similar earthworks in the region appear to have served a variety of purposes, so it will depend on future research and archeology of the locations to confirm their actual uses. The Adena culture didn’t have a written language, unless evidence of such simply has not yet been found.

If you have a chance and are anywhere near Ohio come check out Fort Ancient. There is a museum on site and other educational activities. The grounds are accessible by automobile and there is also a walking trail, which gives you a closer look at the location.

For more information visit www.fortancient.org

Happy history travels!

– Amanda Stiver

English is Two Languages

You can learn a lot about a person from the way they speak. You can learn a lot about a country by the language they use. In this case, by the language that is shared by two countries.

The English language is named for its country of origin, but it is shared with in use by England’s rebellious former colonies, The United States of America. That said, we really don’t speak the same language. Particularly our idioms and slang. We may spell a word the same, but that doesn’t mean we grant it the same meaning.

Perusing my copy of British English A to Zed by Norman W. Schur and Eugene Ehrlich proves elucidating.

I have heard of kerfuffles before, but didn’t realize it was a British word for a fuss, commotion or dither. Fascinating, although I rarely hear Americans use the words commotion or dither, perhaps fuss.

Girl Scouts are Girl Guides in Britain and oddly enough if you get in a kerfuffle in your troop you might get up someone’s nose! Or in America, get in someone’s hair 0r on their nerves.

A publican sounds vaguely Roman, but it really just means saloon keeper. A puncture isn’t a medical state; it is a flat tire on your car after you’ve been motoring on rough ground.

A spate is a flood of something or other. And a shout isn’t something you do after you’ve had too much alcohol, but is instead the word used for treating others to a round of drinks.

So here’s to speaking a foreign language that you already know!

Cheers!

– Amanda Stiver