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Sunday Salon: I want a vacation

June 28, 2009

The Sunday Salon.comWho else feels like they need a vacation? It’s not even July yet (although almost – where the heck did June go?), but I am already lamenting my lack of vacation this summer. It’s busy, and I’m pressing to get bunches of work done this summer so that I can spend the fall semester actually writing my dissertation, plus I’m moving… so it’s hard to justify taking any time off to travel, but man, I want to. I think the best I’m going to be able to manage is home to visit my parents for a weekend this month, and a few days at a conference in August… but neither of those really counts as vacation. I guess I’ll have to content myself with looking at pictures from previous years’ trips.
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In terms of books, I’m currently reading Emma Darwin’s A Secret Alchemy; I’m only about 40 pages in so far, but it’s fascinating. I’m particularly enjoying thinking about how the British approach to history is very different from the U.S. approach. I once read somewhere something to the effect of “Americans have a deep and abiding sense of their own history extending all the way back to 1967,” and I think in large part that’s true. It’s always felt to me like history is something that happened *somewhere else*, whereas it seems like for Brits (and other Europeans?), history is something that happened *here*. The only place in the U.S. where I’ve gotten the same feeling of “history hanging around” as I do in European cities is Boston – although is that just because I read more European-focused historical fiction than American-focused historical fiction? Or is there just more European-focused historical fiction out there to be had (because that’s where history happened)?

It’s also entirely possible my assumptions and perceptions are just totally off base, here. So tell me, US-ian and non-US-ian readers, in your mind, where did history happen? How do you think that’s caused by/reflected in the way novels are written, and the way novels are read?

13 Comments leave one →
  1. June 28, 2009 11:23 am

    We had a mini-vacation in May and will have another one in July, but I think that will be it for us.

  2. June 28, 2009 11:29 am

    I do! Although this is my first year without a summer off, so it’s really strange. I feel like I need a vacation but I also feel like it’s not actually summer. I am going home to visit my parents but I have to work then, too.

    Of course, I’ll probably be unemployed come October, so I can have my vacation then.

  3. June 28, 2009 12:56 pm

    Interesting question. When I stop to think about it, I figure that history is divided into a number of different subgenres. Some of them are pretty clear cut; Canadian history happened in Canada, while American history happened in the US and British history happened in the UK. Others show my biases a little more; Renaissance history, for example, happened in Italy because I personally know the most about the Italian Renaissance, the 18th century happened in France because I know a lot about the French revolution and everything that led up to it, and the 19th century happened in industrialized Britain because that’s what I’m most familiar with.

    When I don’t stop to think about it, when I go with my gut reaction, I think that history happened in the Mediterranean a couple thousand years back. But again, I’m biased: I’m a Classicist by training.

  4. June 28, 2009 1:41 pm

    No holidays for me to look forward to either! :(]

    To respond to your point about history. I always think of “history” as roughly the 1200s to 1800s and before that it’s all pre-history or classical history for me! I should mention that I did a degree in medieval history (so might have a bit of bias there about history only starting where my degree did!) and am from England.

    I remember when I was in Florida last year and was being shown, with awe, an old lighthouse that was actually built in the same year as the house that I live in (that I don’t think of as being very old) and finding that very weird! Perhaps that shows how unappreciative you become about the houses and events that took place in the area that you live in when you are surrounded by the stuff!

  5. Shanra permalink
    June 28, 2009 3:29 pm

    I’m sorely, sorely tempted to answer your question with “History happened everywhere” (which is true), but it does seem like the majority of historic novels (that I’ve heard about) seem to be set in Europe, and England specifically. It’s a shame because there are, or could be, some truly fascinating historic novels set elsewhere. Probably there are, but I’ve not stumbled across them.

    I don’t read enough historic fiction to really answer the second part of your question, but you can probably guess from the previous paragraph that I would much like to see more non-European history books mentioned. (I should get off my behind and read the few I’ve got that qualify as such.)

  6. June 28, 2009 3:44 pm

    I had a little vacation earlier this month, but it didn’t feel like much of one. I could use another–much longer one. Without out of town visitors or a sprained ankle or any other activities that seem like too much responsibility.

    I tend to read more historical fiction that takes place outside of the U.S., but that isn’t to say I don’t read U.S. based historical fiction either. History is so fascinating to me in general. For me, I think history is about all of us, even if across the seas and in another country. We are all interconnected. Time wise, history can be hundreds, thousands or millions of years ago or it could be twenty-thirty years ago. Technically, history could be yesterday (although I don’t really think of it that way).

  7. June 28, 2009 6:22 pm

    Sorry about your not having a vacation this summer. We are going to the Oregon coast for a few days and I am really looking forward to it.

    The history question is an interesting one. I grew up in New England and thought all US history that “meant anything” happened there. Talk about bias..it wasn’t until I started traveling and ended up in the west that I opened up to other points of view, the very different culture of the south and the history of slavery there, the settling of the plains and the west, the history of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

    Then I started learning about native cultures and First Nations people. What about their history? Doesn’t that count? It took some time to break out of my Euro-centric, classical mindset but it was worth it.

    So I think history reflected in fiction completely depends on the author, what their focus is and how far they are willing to stretch. I love reading fiction from different places and am always overwhelmed by how much I don’t know!

  8. June 28, 2009 6:35 pm

    Very interesting post! I agree with you that it seems that “history is something that happened *somewhere else*, whereas it seems like for Brits (and other Europeans?), history is something that happened *here*.” I guess it reflects our progress/future oriented outlook. But it’s something that didn’t register with me until you said it!

  9. June 28, 2009 11:20 pm

    I am in desperate need of a vacation. My job is killing me, but I can’t take on until a current project is over – and it feels as though it will NEVER be over.

    On a slightly different bent, I distinctly remember feeling history more when I moved from Grand Rapids to Virginia. In terms of this country, much of the earliest history happened here. While Michigan has/had it’s Native American tribes and French fur trading, much of the history of the country itself started on the East coast.

    Great Sunday Salon post!

  10. June 29, 2009 9:31 am

    bermudaonion – Mini-vacations are nice, too! Going anywhere fun?

    Meghan – My schedule gets really messed up in semesters where I’m not teaching, because then there’s no delineation between the school year and the summer.

    Memory – What you said about Renaissance = Italy and 18th century = France was basically of what I was getting at… in my mind, most of history happened in Rome, Paris, and London, just because that’s where most of the stories I read are set.

    Peta – Interesting point about the lighthouse… I wonder how much of what I’m perceiving as the American vs. British split in attitudes regarding history has to do with the buildings… with the exception of some cities on the east coast, there’s not a huge feeling of “history happened here, in this house”, because so much of the construction is new… and even the “old” buildings rarely stretch back that far.

    Shanra – The only non-European, non-American historical fiction novels that I’ve read (off the top of my head) are things like Lisa See – set in China or Japan. Oh, and last fall I did read Sherry Jones’s The Jewel of Medina, which was about the early days of Islam, so there’s at least some stuff out there.

    Literary Feline – Your point about history being about all of us is a good one, but I tend to have the opposite problem… I tend to read it as being *so much* about all of us that the time spans just collapse in my head and I lose the historical context.

    Gavin – You’re right, of course, and when I stop to look at it, I actually have read a fair amount of US-ian historical fiction – I wonder why it never sticks in my brain as counting as “history”.

    rhapsodyinbooks – That’s an interesting idea, about looking to the future replacing looking back to the past. Do you think the two can co-exist (on a societal level)?

    LitHousewife – There’s definitely a “smear” of history across the US, starting on the east coast and moving west. I grew up in Chicago, which has plenty of its own history, but still, history was stuff that happened in New York and Boston and Philly and Washington, not here.

  11. June 29, 2009 5:30 pm

    So your version of history is like that old saying: the English think 100 miles is far and the US thinks that 100 years is old? lol

    That said flippantly, I tend to think of everything in terms of English history because that’s been my thing for eons. It wasn’t until I picked up 1632 (the alt history novel by Eric Flint) a month or two back that I realized how little I know about the German provinces, and I’m more German than English (in a typical mutt way).

    You need to take a vacation. I took those two nights/3 days in Pt Reyes last week and I had no idea how desperately I’d needed a vacation. Now I need a longer one. :)

  12. Shanra permalink
    June 30, 2009 8:58 am

    *nods* I know it’s out there. It just doesn’t seem to get read as much in the English speaking part of the western world. That also makes it harder to look for books like that.

    I think the Dutch bookstores are seeing more contemporary Middle Eastern/Asian literature, though, if that helps/counts.

  13. June 30, 2009 9:07 am

    Carrie – I don’t think I’d ever heard that saying before, but that’s exactly what I mean.

    Shanra – Agreed, there’s an influx of contemporary novels/authors from non European/American sources… but it’s definitely harder to find historical fiction. I can tell you what was going on in the 1700s in the US, in Britain, and in France, and to some degree in the rest of the world (where it intersected with British Colonialism) but could I tell you what was going on in the 1700s in, say, the Middle East? Kenya? China? No, no I could not.

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