Tag Archives: memory


Historiography is the fancy-pants word for the writing of History. It also means a theory of how to do this writing of History. Since I’m working on writing about a woman who is dead, that means I do historical writing. Historiography, both the method I should use and the writing of this History, plagues me.

How do we access the past? Memory. And then if the past we access is outside living memory, we used documents and artifacts, things left over from the past that can be studied and read. All documents and artifacts require interpretation, which will require another entry in this alphabet. It’s a good thing I comes after H.

There are all kinds of ideas about and practices of writing history. One way of writing and thinking about history is the “Great Man” theory of history. This theory turns history into biography, where only some biography counts – the lives of Great Men, whatever and whoever they may be. Note the non-inclusive language. Only Men need apply for greatness in most versions of this theory. While many historians have turned away from the Heroes Make History! way of thinking about the past, I think this kind of historiography infects many of our ways of thinking about the world. When defining “greatness” in humans, we think about history and how history will evaluate people. Those who are remembered are great. The rest of us are not so much. If history has not remembered a person, then they must not have been great, or had much influence. I’m not at all sure that this is true. I’m also not at all sure how to counter this reduction of history into biographies of the great.

Other ways of thinking about history include the shape and trajectory of history. Is history circular and thus repeat itself? Or should we picture history as a line moving toward some future end yet to be revealed? Does the line trend upward (progress!) or downward (doom!)?

This entry took me ages to write. I’ve been thinking about it and writing it and re-writing it (both in my head and on paper) since the last entry in this alphabet was published. I have several ideas of metaphors that undermine and counter the Heroes Make History! line of thought. There’s also quite a lot to say about memory, documents, and artifacts. In the end, I’ve talked most about the historiography that I think is faulty and infects our thinking, but given you nothing to replace it. Keep reading.

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Early Reading

Over at Publisher’s Weekly some staff people mentioned books that made them love reading. I thought about their question: “What was the first book that made you love books?” I’m not sure what was the first book. I remember the first book that I had a strong reaction to, the first book that I remember re-reading multiple times, the first one that made me want to go out and read everything else the author had written — but I’m not sure I want to tell you which book it was. Ok. I will. It was Treasures of the Snow by Patricia M. St. John. I have not seen the movie or listened to the audio book. I am not actually sure how old I was when I read this book. I probably started reading the Narnia books before it, and in the long run those have influenced me more, but I don’t remember first reading them. But it was P.M. St. John who really sealed the deal on the whole reading thing. I think I was already hooked, but she made sure the hook stayed in.

What about you? What’s the one book you think hooked you on reading? Or are you still unconvinced?


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Poetry challenge pages

You may have noticed I’ve been writing poetry. A colleague of mine from the bookshop is also writing poems. Thirty poems, thirty days! You can do it too. This is the third poem I wrote today. I wrote it while walking down Harbord Street, and it went click at Harbord and Major. I think the location was serendipitous.

Shannon Blake

Dislikes cake.

This is why

She bakes pie.

Why can I write so many of these short, pithy poems? Because I can do them in my head while walking down the street, and they are easy to remember until I get to a place where I can write them down. True story.

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This is your brain on Beacon?

Yesterday I was procrastinating browsing the photos people have been uploading to the Beacon Bible Camp facebook page. Beacon is the camp I’ve volunteered at for as long as I’ve been old enough to do so, is the place I went to camp as a camper, and where I was a camp staff kid before that. The old photos are out in force as Beacon is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Many of the old photos bring back memories of situations not shown in the pictures, but which may have happened with the people in the pictures. I thought briefly about the old record player at camp, and the Very Limited Selection of records available to put on the turntable.
This morning I woke up with a song in my head from those very vinyl albums we played over and over again on that record player. B.J. Thomas, I haven’t heard from you in a while! Memory is a funny thing isn’t it? How on earth did a fleeting memory of the silly record player produce B.J. Thomas singing “Home Where I Belong” in my head? Why do I remember the lyrics after (mumblemumble) years? Who knows.
What weird sound tracks has your brain come up with lately?


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10 Books I think should be on any Top 100

That “100 Novels Everyone Should Read” list got in my head a little bit. Not in a bad way — I’m not worried about my lack of numbers on the list — it got me thinking about the criteria for making such a list. The Telegraph list that I linked to the other day doesn’t give any reasons for the books on the list, or reasons for the existence of the list. That has lots of people around the blog-o-sphere scratching their heads. Search on 100 novels everyone should read and check out the posts!

Back to my thinking about the list. I decided that a book should be read by lots of people if it gets in my head and resonates in my imagination, if I remember it without difficulty long after I’ve finished it, and if it calls me back for a re-read now and again. With those criteria in mind, here is a list of 10 books that meet them, from my reading experience. After 1 and 2, these are in no particular order.

1. Possession by A.S. Byatt. Are you surprised? If so, read this. I think about this book a lot because I do research on 19th-century writers. The book is about academics who read and research 19th-century poets. It resonates. It is also well-written (won the Booker Prize), has loads of layers, and plays on the title word. Byatt is brilliant.

2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. This book hits most top 100 lists. It is a well-told tale that withstands re-reading. It can be an acquired taste, but once the taste is acquired, it is an addiction.

3. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. What? by Who? I hear you saying. Seriously, this Stephenson book has been in my head since I first read it. It is a cyberpunk novel, the first one I read. Mind-blowing experience.

4. Tigana by Guy Gavrel Kay. I’ve talked about Tigana before I think — it is an historical fantasy that deals with memory and the loss of memory/history and so the loss of identity for a people. I couldn’t stop thinking about it after I read it.

5. Runaway Jury by John Grisham. Really? A Grisham book? This one I liked because of the moral ambiguity in the characters, and the means-end conflict. The setting also spins around in my head, along with the way the characters hide and re-make themselves.

6. Snow by Orhan Pamuk. (No more titles with snow in them, promise.) The structure of the story and the poetry of language in this one blew me away.

7. Room by Emma Donoghue. How does this one not get in your head with the five-year-old narrator who has never been outside the room of the title?

8. Mystical Paths by Susan Howatch. Ok, all of Howatch’s Church of England books get in my head, but this one sticks out to me. All about spiritual gifts and their use and abuse, clearly a theological connection.

9. Children of Men by P.D. James. The mystery books are good, but this one is great. James portrays humanity on the brink of extinction very vividly. There are clear theological overtones in this book too.

10. Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher. I hesitated over this one, but it meets the criteria. The theme given in the title echoes through the book in lots of ways. This one sticks in my head.

You are not me. What are your top ten books that meet the criteria listed? Remember the criteria are: the book resonates in your imagination, you remember the story long after you are done, you want to re-read the book. Top ten. Or five even. With all of us together, maybe we can collaborate on a new top 100 list!

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Reading for people who get bored easily

I don’t think I get bored too easily. And I can sucked in by a book and fail to notice that great amounts of time have gone by while I’m reading. But sometimes I find my mind wandering when I’m reading. I read a sentence and a word triggers a memory and pouf! I’m off on a ramble down a rabbit trail in my head instead of reading the book in my hand. Now, of course, this isn’t always a bad thing. A little trip down memory lane, or a side trip along related-thought trail, can be therapeutic. Or insightful. Or all of the above. But sometimes it is just distracting from the matter at hand.

I find I drift off a little more often if a book I’m reading is difficult or if I’m a bit bored by the material. If the book is dense with ideas, and I need a mental break, my mind drifts off. Sometimes it is difficult to come back from these mental breaks, however needed they might be, so I’ve been trying out some techniques so that I’m more focused while reading. Taking notes helps, particularly when reading for research purposes. I read with a small notebook and pencil to hand. I do make notes in books (only in pencil) but the notebook gives me space for related jottings, summaries, or ways things relate to one another. When reading particularly difficult material, stopping and summarizing every chapter (or smaller unit if that is helpful) is a very useful exercise. It is time-consuming, but can be quite valuable when writing up research.

Then there’s the multi-tasking reader method. I picked this idea up from a novel I once read. I think it was a book by Margaret Drabble, and the two books I’ve read of hers are The Radiant Way and A Natural Curiosity. There’s a character that occurs in both these books who is an academic who characteristically reads two books at once as she is easily bored. Huh, I thought. Two books at once. There’s an idea. And I shelved it in the space in my brain reserved for quirky things characters do in books that I find interesting. A few years ago I was trying to wade through a particularly dreadful book that I thought I SHOULD read because people were talking about it. I remembered the two-book academic. I decided to try a version of the two-book thing. I’d read one chapter of the dreadful book, then one chapter of something else, and alternate. Maybe, I thought, I can then make it through the dreadful book without self-injury. It worked. And I got through the dreadful book quite quickly. I filed this under Useful Information in my brain. A couple of weeks ago I hauled out the two-book technique. I wasn’t reading a dreadful book this time, but one with a lot of information. Once more, the alternating thing worked quite well. I’ve decided that this is a way I can read more non-work non-fiction – I’ll alternate non-fiction chapters with my current fiction read. We’ll see how this goes. Updates to come.

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New Beginnings

Last week I finished the third volume of my books-I-have-read list and started the fourth. By “volume” I mean a small hardcover notebook with about 200 lined pages in it. It is most like a journal, but the particular books I’m using I bought ages ago, when I was doing my undergrad, and they aren’t decorated or fancy like many journals are these days. Neither do they cost an arm and a leg like most journals do now. One summer the Woolco store near my Aparents’ house sold them for 99¢ each. (You can tell how long ago this was by the fact that I bought the books at Woolco, a store that no longer exists.) I’m using the last of those books now, and will have to find some other sort of book to write in once I’ve used it up. Fortunately it takes five or six years for me to use one of these books up.

I started keeping track of what I read in July, 1993. The habit has followed me for a long time, through several moves and a career change. Why bother? you might ask. By now, 19 years later, it is a bit of a habit. I like the habit, though. It gives me a feeling of accomplishment to write down all the books I finish reading. BUT, it means that books I partially read, or dip into at times for reference, or only read one or two essays from are not included in my List. Neither are journal articles I read. Even given these gaps, the List tells me what I read and so gives some indication of what I might have been thinking about over the past two decades. The List includes a short description of the book — and that is very interesting to revisit. I don’t always agree with my initial assessment. I’m not sure whether this is because as I reflect on the book further my thinking about it changes, or whether I’m not being accurate in my writing. It is a bit puzzling.

Yes, The List is a bit of a quirky thing. No, I probably don’t need to keep on doing it, but I will. Some people keep journals, I keep the list. It ends up being a bit of a journal, a window into one piece of my life. It often reminds me of things that happened when I was reading a particular book. It may remind me of friends who shared books with me. Some books I read on road-trips I took back in the day to visit my friend in North Carolina, and that section of Volume 1 brings back memories of sitting in bed with her cats and a cup of tea. I sort of like that the journal is coded — I remember the cats and the tea, but they are not written down for others to see. It is a quirky, coded journally thing. And I’m hooked on keeping it up.

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M is for Monday. And Memoir.

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter

M is for Memoir.

A memoir is a narrative composed from personal experience. Often memoirs are confused with autobiographies, but memoirs do not tell a person’s whole life story, but recount a specific part of their experience. My blog post yesterday is an example of a short memoir, a narrative based on personal experience. I’ve  been collecting conversion memoirs lately, stories people have published about their conversion to Christian faith.

The first conversion memoir I remember reading was Born Again by Charles Colson. I usually don’t tell people that one of the reasons I decided to study theology was reading Colson. I’m not an American, but if I was, I wouldn’t be a republican. Colson is, of course, a notorious republican. I remember Born Again appearing on my father’s shelves shortly after it was published. My 10-year-old self was disconcerted by this. I recall wondering what political benefit would come from Colson’s book. I didn’t say those things out loud. I remember being suspicious of the whole thing, though, certain that this conversion could not be real. I didn’t actually read the book until about 15 years later. By then Colson had also written many other books, one of which, Loving God, got me further along the studying theology path.

Other conversion memoirs that I’ve read include: Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life by C.S. Lewis, Girl Meets God, by Lauren F. Winner, Take this Bread, by Sara Miles, and Surprised by Oxford by Caroline Webber. Lewis, Winner, and Miles I unreservedly recommend. Webber I wanted to like, but found her narrative under-edited and over-written. Some people I know absolutely love it, though, so you might as well.

Colson wrote another memoir about living the Christian life called Life Sentence. I’ve found that many people who write conversion narratives often write this sort of follow-up memoir. Some new follow-up memoirs (by Lauren F. Winner and Sara Miles) have very recently appeared. I’m looking forward to reading them.

Why read Conversion Memoirs or Christian Life Memoirs at all? Why should someone else’s reflection on their own life, their navel-gazing, have any interest to me? I’ve been reading a collection of essays called Why Narrative? on theology and stories. In one of these essays, Nicolas Lash argues that the paradigmatic form of Jewish and Christian religious discourse is autobiography. Testimony, our own testimony of God’s work in our lives, is the paradigmatic form of Jewish and Christian religious discourse, beginning with the confession that “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26:5). As we listen to the testimony of other people, we learn to live our own story. This is what makes these memoirs important for me to read. From them I’m learning to better live my own story.


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Back to WW2: Coming Home

I was going to title this blog post something about Epics as that is the major kind of historical fiction I’ve not yet mentioned, though perhaps Cryptonomicon might be an epic. And I’m not completely sure that Coming Home is an epic. The book is of epical size (more than 1000 pages) and covers about 10 years of one persons life. I think that to qualify as an epic it should talk about multiple generations of a family or something larger in scope than one person’s life.

The main character of Coming Home is Judith Dunbar, whom we first meet when she is 14 and about to enter boarding school in England while her mother and sister rejoin her father in Sri Lanka. The whole book is about Judith’s search for a place that she can call home. Judith enters boarding school at 14 in 1935, so do the math. When she’s 18 and leaving school war is about to begin. The book is not about WW2 as much as it is about people who lived at the time when WW2 happened and changed their lives. Part of the setting is the war. But the theme, homecoming, could have been addressed without the historical setting. The historical setting may have made it easy for the author to rip away the main character’s sense of home and place, but the theme has been dealt with in other ways.

I like the book and re-read it because I like the characters and the strong sense of place, not because it is about a particular time in history. If I were to compare Coming Home with The Twilight of Courage, which makes sense as both are set during WW2 and are of a similar length and I read them first in the mid-90s, I’d say that CH has stayed in my head and ToC has not. CH sticks with me because of Judith and the places and situations she finds herself in looking for home — the character and settings are memorable. I can’t even remember the characters names in ToC because I think there are too many of them. I’m sure the title about courage has something to do with the key idea of the book but I couldn’t give you a synopsis of it as I’ve done with CH. I remember the first time I read CH, where I was and what I was doing; I don’t have a similar memory for ToC. To sum up: historical fiction works well when the elements of story, character, and setting all connect to make a memorable whole. This is true for any kind of fiction. This may be obvious, but sometimes the obvious needs to be said.

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Twisty History 2: Tigana

Yesterday I suggested that Cryptonomicon is History-With-A-Twist. It has recognizable historical events in it — the Hindenburg disaster, WW2, Pearl Harbour and all that. It includes historical figures as characters, Alan Turing and Douglas McArthur prominent among them. It has places you can visit — Manila, London, Tokyo, Seattle. But it also has funny glitches that mark it as Not-Quite-History. There are places and people and happenings that are fictional, things that couldn’t quite be so.

While Cryptonomicon is obviously set in a (mostly) familiar history, Tigana is not quite as clearly based in history. It is more a fantasy novel, placed somewhere utterly foreign, somewhere that is clearly not this planet. Yet something resonates somehow. The story is set on a peninsula called the Palm, which reminds the reader (well me anyhow) in a vague way of an Earthly peninsula shaped like a boot. Once this connection is made, the names in the book start to sound Italian; the pronunciation guide at the beginning of the book uses Italian words as examples. A re-reading of the Acknowledgements makes the connection crystal clear — the author wrote part of the book in Tuscany. Tigana is generally classified as Fantasy, but Guy Gavriel Kay, the author, writes fantasy based on history. Tigana was one of his early works, and I think one of his best. It evokes the loss of culture that comes with invasion, the loss of a sense of home that an occupying empire brings, and the importance of remembering for identity. It also contains that elusive element of grace that I seem to be fond of.

It seems that if I were going to write historical fiction, I would lean toward alternative history — something with a twist. I’m not sure whether I lean most toward working with the kinds of minor twists found in Cryptonomicon or the much larger twists of Tigana which require imagining a completely new world loosely based on some kind of history. In some ways the completely other world could be easier — I could do whatever I wanted in that new world. But the minor twists present an interesting challenge — is the alt.history believable? Could it really have happened that way?

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