A bit over seven years ago, my friend, Mike, asked me to join a history book club. He described how he had felt his brain thirsting for something challenging, and reading and discussing history books was his prescription.
I had hated history in school. It consisted mainly of memorization of dates, which I did not excel at, nor did I find it particularly interesting. I also hate sound-bites. Life and its challenges are almost always more complex than a 30-second segment I hear on the news. I thought that a history discussion could provide an opportunity to look at events in detail and to begin to understand them in context. I readily joined.
Our discussion group is an eclectic bunch. Mike works in human resources. Bob and John are attorneys. Another Dave is a handy man and Bill a teacher. A second Mike works in commercial real estate. Peter was in pharmaceutical sales. I worked in mental health and drug abuse treatment. It’s always been a men-only group. The ground rules of the group are pretty simple. We meet every other month to discuss a book. We take turns picking the book and hosting the meeting. The books can be about anything historical, with preference for actual history rather than historical novels. We are to remain respectful of one another’s opinions. We can agree or disagree, and we oftentimes do plenty of both. Some clearly have deeper knowledge of history, and we appreciate their perspectives. But no one seems reticent to speak. Our membership spans the traditional conservative-moderate-liberal scope of opinions.
As of the summer of 2017, the group has discussed something over 40 books. It has been eye-opening for all of us. Mike chose two sociological studies. Why is the Dominican Republic thriving while Haiti is not, despite the fact that they share the same island? We learned that, at some point, the ruler in Haiti wanted a massive palace made of wood. Haiti’s forests were leveled. Topsoil no longer had roots to hold it into place and much of the topsoil blew into the sea. No top soil, no food. No food, poor economy. A similar event occurred in several South Pacific islands.
John tossed in a book about epidemics and governmental responses to disease outbreaks. I felt pretty smart that meeting, as I’d worked at a health department. I could describe the system we had in place to assure rapid distribution of prophylactic antibiotic medications. The group was comforted to know that someone was thinking and planning to handle large disease outbreaks.
Mike had us read a book about George Washington’s revolutionary war spy ring. Six individuals in New England spied in plain sight against the British and helped turn that portion of the war. Most of us had no clue of this phase of the American Revolutionary War.
I believe that most of us think of Prohibition as a puritanical movement against the evils of alcohol. While there certainly was some of that, the reality at the turn of the century was that beer was served routinely in factories starting in the late morning—a recipe for disaster. There were no safety standards for what we typically call ‘hard liquor,’ leaving many poisoned or dead after consumption of bad batches of brew. Per capita consumption of alcohol was 2-3 times today’s rate. Something had to be done—Prohibition makes much more sense in this context.
Bill, our resident historian, tossed in a book on the portion of history where Great Britain controlled India. At one point, it used India as a wedge to battle against Russia. Most of my school-based history only discussed foreign life as it related to U.S. history. Looking at history from the perspectives of Britain, India and Russia was an eye-opener. Dave, the handy man, selected General George Rommel, the German ‘desert fox’ who was initially very successful in northern Africa during World War II. He also brought us Hannibal’s battles against imperial Rome.
Did you know that British tea was essentially stolen from China? The Brits actually sent a botanist secretly to China to steal hundreds of seedlings. Charles Lindbergh was an amazing pilot and inventor, but had many shortfalls as husband and father. Ty had us read about the U.S.-led overthrow of the democratically elected government in Iran in the 1950’s. In our sound-bite world, we wonder why Iran hates us wonderful democracy-focused Americans. It has only been with the recent declassification of CIA documents that we learn why we’re not on their Christmas card list.
It has been interesting to learn that U.S. presidents assist one another in what one author called ‘the presidents’ club,’ and party affiliation is largely irrelevant. Sometimes this has meant that former presidents assist in diplomatic travels representing the country; sometimes it has meant calling for public support and financial donations related to humanitarian needs; and sometimes it has simply been a phone call or visit. Regardless of the expertise of staff in each White House administration, there’s nothing like talking through a difficult issue with someone that has faced it previously.
Two books I brought to the group discussed the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg and the building of the Panama Canal. In both instances, I’d visited the locations shortly before the gatherings, and so I was able to add pictures and video to the discussion. This helped get a more complete understanding of the stories behind the history. Gettysburg lasted just three days, and primarily a foolish decision by Southern generals to charge through open fields against the North turned the tide. The Panama Canal was started by the French, who unfortunately had more political than engineering knowledge. A large sale of stock meant that a large number of French citizens had supported the unsuccessful effort to build the canal. Fortunately, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was more successful.
Our group membership seems to remain at between 8-12 members, although the make-up of the group changes over time. And while we’ve covered a hodge-podge of stories, we can see that we’ve filled in many blanks on our historical journey. I have found the history discussion a personally enriching experience. History is no longer dry and dusty and filled with dates. It has complexity and challenge—things I always guessed were present all of the time. And while our membership comes with a wide range of knowledge and background, I believe that our collective wisdom has made us all smarter historians.