History can be a daunting subject. Names, dates, places, events—they're undeniably hard to keep track of, especially when they're presented as a bunch of disparate elements (as many textbooks often present them). Its detractors call history "dry" and "boring," but there's a good chance most of them simply haven't seen history for what it is.
Like any good story, history does have names and places and dates, but it's essential to remember that it is a story. Narrative historians take this into account and capitalize on it, recording actual events with the immediacy and interest of a novel. When the plotline of history begins to emerge from all the raw facts, it becomes clear that, rather than being an overly-academic pursuit, history is a vibrant and living study.
A lot of the most interesting bits are found in the details. These are the parts that make history human, that show us we aren't much different from the people who lived in ancient Polynesia or 16th-century France, especially when all the cultural differences are demystified. For instance, how much more fascinating does World War II become once you stumble on the tale of Wojtek, a brown bear conscripted into the Polish Army who smoked cigarettes, drank beer from the bottle, and fought the Axis powers?
The correct answer is: very much more interesting. Unearthing those facts can be difficult, however, especially if you restrict history study to curriculum and textbooks. Which is where history resources come in, like superheroes in capes and tights to rescue bored history students everywhere with the true awesomeness of History.
Before we get too carried away with our alternative education methods, let it be known we aren't saying textbooks are a bad place to start. They offer a generally coherent view, and surveys of important eras and regions is important for having a general idea of the flow of the past. However, you shouldn't stop there; it's hard to really understand the past until you've experienced it from a more intimate perspective.
One of the best ways to get a feel for an era is through autobiographies. To get a firsthand account of the American Civil War, read the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant or A Short History of the Confederate States of America by CSA president Jefferson Davis. Asser's Life of King Alfred isn't an autobiography, but it was written by a man who knew the great English king. Black Like Me is one man's incredible account of the Civil Rights Movement.
Here's another thing to remember: history leaves tracks. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are obviously dead, but families in the Pacific Northwest can still pack the family into the full size van (or the Prius, if you live in the PNW) and see the remains of Fort Clatsop where they spent the winter of 1805-06. Or, if you live in the East or South, there're Civil War and Revolution-era battlefields around every corner. Of course, most historical sites these days are government-operated so you'll have to filter their anti-Christian bias for the kiddos, but the experience of "seeing history" is invaluable.
Which is more possible in our Technological Age than it once was. We have something no other people in all the annals of time had before us: the DVD player. And, because there will always be creative people who are also history nerds, we have plenty of video-based history resources. There's the History Channel, sure, but one of our favorite series of history DVDs comes from Dave Stotts, a Christian who presents kids with a biblical understanding of world and American history on-site where the events took place; Drive Thru History is the kind of thing you wish you'd had in school.
Then there's all the other stuff to deepen your knowledge, like timelines, atlases, Usborne and Kingfisher books filled with information and colorful pictures, historical paper dolls and coloring books, even historical fiction. You'll want to be careful how far you take this, but a well-researched novel about an historical period can offer insights into culture, living conditions, and attitudes a "history book" seldom can.
This is really what it's all about, anyway. We want to know the past for two reasons: to understand human nature, and to understand our own times. A list of facts by itself won't go very far satisfying either of those goals. To get at the core of profitable history study, we need to see the human face of those who've gone before, to know how they thought, what motivated them, and why on earth we're still making the same mistakes that were made in ancient Greece or feudal Japan.
With almost 5000 items, this can be a daunting section. We encourage you to just browse, and to remember that there's nothing wrong with picking a book just because it catches your fancy. So what if you aren't studying the construction of the Erie Canal right at the moment? If you want to read about it, go ahead. The acquisition of historical knowledge should be fun, and we've done our best to make it so with this collection of titles.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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