Time and culture

Reenactors bring the past to life at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, August 2010

Reenactors bring the past to life at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, August 2010

“You’ve got to marinate your head, in that time and culture. You’ve got to become them.”David McCullough

I think one of the best and quickest ways to defeat despair is to read a bit of history and contemplate what life used to be like.  I’ve found that nonfiction often seems best for this, since many historical novels can romanticize the past or skip over some of the more unpleasant realities that were inescapable for previous generations.  Contrary to what a lot of people think, well-written historical accounts need not be boring, and in fact, some of the most absorbing books I’ve ever read were nonfiction biographies and histories.

If you’ve ever read anything by David McCullough, you know that he is a master at bringing the past to life for his readers.  It’s easy to believe he immerses himself in the past just as he describes here, enabling him to open doors in our imagination that will bring us as close to time travel as anything can.

Winter is a great time to dig into a McCullough book.  The first book I read by him was Truman, and the only reason I read it was that I found myself in a place where few other choices were available. I was amazed how McCullough’s writing captivated me, leaving me feeling almost as if I knew a man whose biography had never interested me before.  1776 was equally good, and gave me a new understanding of our country’s war for independence.

Of course, McCullough is not the only gifted historical writer awaiting lucky readers.  Any public library or bookstore will have shelves full of histories and biographies that are every bit as absorbing as any novel, covering any period history that might interest you.  If you’re a reader — or even if you’re not much of a reader — try a little time travel during these long winter months, via a book set in a past era.  Or share with us here about some of your favorite journeys to the past, through the magic of reading.

One year ago today

Almost like talking


  1. Sheila

    Julia, I think I will make a point to read “The Greatest Generation” by Tom Brokaw. My Mom loved that book and often spoke of living that life that made her (and those from that era) so strong. I would like to read the description in the book and compare to the personal stories that Mom would recall often. I haven’t read David McCullough but I need to. Stay warm, my friend! 🙂 Sheila

    • Thanks Sheila, I want to read that book too. There are so many things about life during the early years of our parents’ generation that were radically different from what we know today. Even relatively minor things. For example, I can remember Mama talking about having to wash cloth diapers with a wringer washer, and my sister getting her hand stuck in it! And of course, women rearing several children without a car to get to the grocery or doctor’s office (since so many families in those years had only one car, if that, which the fathers usually took to work). You make a good point that we don’t have to go very far back in history to find reason after reason to be thankful, not just for what we have now, but for having had parents who were so remarkable. We are staying warm here, and hope you are too!

      • Sheila

        Julia, since you seem to enjoy my “coastal living tid bits” I must tell you that wind off the ocean can drop the temperature by at least 10*. On a night with such a frigid chill, we’ll just guess! 🙂 Sheila

        • Wow – I bet it makes a wonderful sound, too! I’ve always thought it would be so lovely to be on the beach during winter – in a cozy, warm home, of course! Maybe someday I’ll find out. 🙂 Thanks so much for being here!

  2. Sheila

    It is so cold here that we’ve had to place a ceramic heater out in our Carolina room for Walter. This is one for the history books. I’m wondering about Boomdeeadda!

    • I’m hoping she is well prepared for such freezing weather, although she did say something recently about it being an unusually bad winter. Jeff said earlier that it was colder in Atlanta today than Anchorage. Unbelievable! I’m glad you’re keeping Walter warm. 🙂 Can he imitate the sound of teeth chattering?

      • Sheila

        We really think he says, ” Move me!” when he wants to move from his night time area over to where the action is. You must think we’re “coo-coo” ! 🙂

        • No, I think you’re right; he probably really is saying that. I have a post coming up about people having wordless conversations with animals. So if you are coo-coo, I am too! I think animals communicate fairly well in certain circumstances, if we are listening.

    • Hi Sheila, you must be watching news about this Arctic Vortex. Luckily it’s east of us but that being said, we’re also having a winter for the history books. We’re lucky in a way, because it just gets cold and stays cold, so we don’t suffer the ice damage from thaw and freeze weather (normally). Stay warm! Feeling the cold is all relative to what you’re accustom to and so I really feel for you all. Boomdee 😀

      • Especially poor Walter! I imagine he is saying to Sheila and Bill, “Hey folks, I’m a SUN Conure! Not an ICE Conure! Not even a SNOW Conure! SUN! S-U-N!!!” Boomdee I am glad you are well prepared for the freezing weather. I just know that is why you are so creative and know how to make your own sunshine! 🙂

        • (( Julia )) so sweet to say, thank you. What they say here in Alberta about the weather is, “if you don’t like it, wait 5 minutes”. LOL true enough.

          • Or you could say, “if you don’t like the weather, hop a plane and go see Alys or Julia!” 🙂 Although Alys would definitely have the best chance of good weather, but we would at least be a little bit warmer. However, if you don’t like “hot” you might have a problem here in July or August…

  3. merry

    I enjoy reading history and biographies. not so much autobiographies.
    I’ve read several of David McCullough’s books. I enjoyed reading about Truman. And the 1776. I enjoy historical fiction but take in account “author’s license.” 🙂
    I’ve recently read Bill O’Reilly’s books, the “Killing of Lincoln” and “Killing of Kennedy.” The Killing of Lincoln is interesting. But not Killing of Kennedy. I think, because I’d heard much of the information of Kennedy but not Lincoln. I’m planning to read the Killing of Jesus next.
    I find it interesting that Bill O’Reilly was once a history teacher. 🙂
    Julia, with all the ice and snow I’ve left my snow man gift out!~/

    • You know Merry, until you pointed that out, I had never realized it, but I think autobiographies are generally not as good as a more objective, third-person viewpoint. I do like reading personal histories as related to a specific topic, such as Andrew Solomon’s book on depression, The Noonday Demon. And sometimes it’s interesting to read memoirs, especially as related to recent history. (I think everyone should read George Tenet’s book At the Center of the Storm – a real eye-opener!) I love historical fiction but I often find myself reading up on history of the period when I read something that stretches credulity or seems “off” – usually I find that the author has done his/her homework quite well! But it’s more a matter of what is left out that skews the picture. I haven’t read any of Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing” books although I have heard people say they are interesting and I would like to read them eventually. I didn’t realize he was a history teacher, but it makes sense. I’m so glad you are enjoying your snow man!

  4. Rene

    The two most recent N/F I have read & remember are”The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Sloot and “The Soloist” by Steve Lopez. If you’ve never understood why some people believe in medical conspiracies, the former will really open your eyes. The latter is by an LA Times columnist who became involved with a homeless, mentally ill man who was a Juilliard-trained violinist. When I’m reading N/F, I usually commit to reading a chapter or so per day; these two books kept me reading straight-through.

    Just a note: I know that book titles should be italicized, not put in quotes, but I can’t figure out how to do it. Any help would be much appreciated. 🙂

    • Hi Rene, I don’t know any way of italicizing book titles when one is commenting on another site; I can never do it myself when I’m commenting someplace else. I am able to do it in my own comments here, because I can edit what I write. I could also go in and edit others’ comments to italicize etc. but I assume many of us who spend much time in the blogging world know that comments coming from anyone other than the blogger are very restricted in terms of what type of punctuation can be used. So, no sweat on that. If you want, though, I can go in and edit your comments, but I prefer generally to leave things as they are. In real-life conversation, there way more grammar inconsistencies (sentence fragments, crazy syntax, etc.) that nobody ever notices – I learned that when I spent hours transcribing meeting tapes; it was really fascinating. Anyway, I look on most grammatical content of blog comments as being intrinsic to the medium and not really something to be avoided in most cases. Hope that makes sense. BTW if anyone else out there knows how to italicize or otherwise alter comments, I’d be interested in hearing too, since I have never been able to do any of that myself on other blogs.

      I have the Lacks book and hope to read it before too long, although my “to read” list is so long as to be almost laughable. But I find having lots of books waiting to be read gives me a pleasant feeling of anticipation that makes every day a bit more exciting. I have never heard of the Lopez book but it sounds fascinating! Just the sort of thing I would find interesting. I really have to restrain myself here before I get started on what I’ve seen and concluded about the medical/insurance world in the past 35 years of working and living with it off and on for so long. Lots of hidden tango going on there, that’s for sure! I am grateful for so much about modern medicine, but also terrified of how open it is to unethical practice, abuse, and neglect. Suffice it to say that we need diligent and principled practitioners, responsible patients, and fearless whistle-blowers now more than ever.

  5. Rene

    My bookcase is pretty much my “to read” list, not that I don’t also have actual lists filling my nightstand drawers! Re: italicization: I’m glad to know it’s not just me!

    • I also have my MP3 player with unabridged audiobooks I download free from the public library. I like having lots to read, there is something to fit every mood that way. As the saying goes, “So many books, so little time…”

  6. I’m always interested in history, be it a documentary, movie, book or even better, travel. I loved our trip to Europe for the ability to walk in the foot steps of historical figures who left their mark on history hundreds of years ago. Napoleons tomb in Paris was fascinating to me even though he’d never really been on my radar. I also loved visiting Monticello in Virginia. All the touring staff were so pleasant and knowledgable. They must surely answer the same questions hundreds of times a year.

    • I can’t believe we have still never been to Monticello, even though Jeff keeps talking about it. I want to go when the tulips are in bloom. When things are an easy drive away we say, “Oh, we can do that anytime” and then never get around to it. I was like you, I had no interest in seeing Napoleon’s tomb but Drew wanted to go there so we went when he and I went to Paris (while he was at Oxford) and I must say, I found it interesting and impressive. That was rather a ginormous box for him to be in, considering his small stature. After that I read a biography of Josephine and the whole story got even more interesting. One thing the book talked about was how bad her teeth were. That’s the sort of detail that doesn’t tend to make it into movies or historical fiction.

      • Really? Poor girl. I suppose dental work was non-existent, even for Royalty. The statuary there was very beautiful too I thought. One of my favourite artworks at The Louvre was The Coronation of Napoleon with many interesting stories of it’s own. Josephine was painted in profile and younger than her actual age. Wouldn’t that have been awful for her to have a bad smile?

        • Yes, that’s one of many things that are often left out of the more romantic historical fiction. Most people in those days had bad teeth, I guess. But they did make it sound as if it was a fairly major issue to her, especially in the romance department. I think I have a vague memory of the painting you mention. One thing I love about history is that there is so much “back story” behind all the details we learned in school. Ken Follett’s novel Pillars of the Earth was so fascinating in that regard. It definitely did not glamorize the past, that’s for sure.

          • I didn’t read that book but my sister-in-law did and I remember it was a giant read. Wouldn’t it be interesting in 100 years for historians to have so much documented everyday history via the net and youtube? Assuming it’s still around. There might be far less romanticizing because of it.

            • Yes, I think it’s so exciting that so many aspects of everyday life, thought, and actions are being preserved online. What worries me is that there is such a glut of it, it will not be valued in the future. Also that it can all be obliterated fairly quickly, much more easily than paper records could be tracked down and destroyed. I wonder if there is a “time capsule” blog anywhere that is specifically focused on allowing people to speak directly to future generations? If not, maybe there should be.

              • There actually is a time capsule being sent into space with messages from today for future explorers to find. I blogged about it here:


                It’s called Keo, and I’ve also deposited a message to it. Who know’s they may not know English as we speak and write it now or it may be someone in the future reading your message 😀

                • I’m glad you reminded me of that. I had totally forgotten about it, although when I re-read the blog I saw where I had clicked “like” on it so I know I did read it. I want to send a message too, but being me, I want to write a 4-pager! But here’s a good one from Ashleigh and it’s much briefer!

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