Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Three Threes

{A Prisoner of the Stone}
A Prisoner of the Stone

Thank you, Mr. President. Tonight I'm to discuss Right Angle Club's odd contribution to book publishing, with emphasis on history books. To make it easier to follow, I title this speech Three Threes, for three meanings, in three categories each. We touch -- in threes -- on 1) book technology, 2) variable proportions of facts and opinion, and 3) pitfalls to success. Times three, makes nine bases to touch, so please understand if I must hustle.

First, let's deconstruct the book in front of you. Ten years ago, I began taking notes at our Friday lunches, writing reviews of our speakers. The younger generation calls it "blogging" when you then broadcast such essays on the Internet; that's how I started the journey, giving it the title of Philadelphia Reflections. The blogs concentrate on the Philadelphia "Scene" because that's what our speakers usually do. Our club has met since 1922, so by rights, it might contain three thousand blogs, but unfortunately, I arrived late, so we only have 400. Call them 400 beads in a bowl, subdivided into ten annual bowls of beads.

After a while themes emerged, so if I picked similar beads from the combined bowl of four hundred, then groups of similar beads become necklaces. Selected necklaces can be artfully arranged into a rope of necklaces, which is to say, a book about Philadelphia, from William Penn to Grace Kelly. Thus without realizing it, I had been writing quite a big book without foreseeing where it would go. I described this curiosity to my computer-savvy son, who wrote a computer program to make it simple for anyone to rearrange such material. Simple, that is, for an author to wander among his own random thoughts, and only in retrospect extract the books. Many authors, I now believe, only imagine they sit down to write a book from start to finish, eventually discovering one was already there, waiting to emerge. Because it wasn't planned, many of them must then rewrite a coherent book after they finally realize what it was about. Since I am also in the publishing business in a small way, I was able to guide my son into automating the subsequent steps of publishing so any author could perform them without a publisher. That makes book authorship resemble fine art; the artist does it all except marketing. This program can now aspire to eliminate the whole old-fashioned assembly line of publishing, which is in the process of dying anyway. So here's the first cluster of threes -- blogs re-assembled into chapters, chapters re-assembled into books, with copy editing, spell checking and book design mostly performed by the computer.

* * * In addition to technology levels, historical literature can also be seen as dividing into three layers of fact mingled with interpretation: starting with primary sources, which are documents allegedly describing pure facts. Scholars pore over such documents and comment on them, usually in scholarly books, called secondary sources . Unfortunately, many publishers reject anything unlikely to sell very well, however essential to the advancement of academic careers. Eventually, authors of history focus on the general reading public and generate tertiary sources, sometimes textbooks, sometimes "popularized" history in rising levels of distinction. There you have the traditional three levels of historical writing.

A German professor named Leopold von Ranke formalized this hierarchy about 1870, thereby vastly improving the quality of history in circulation by insisting that nothing could be accepted as true unless based on primary documents. Von Ranke in fact did transform Nineteenth-century history from the opinionated propaganda in which it had largely declined, into a renewed science. At its best, it aspired to return to Thucydides, with footnotes. Unfortunately, Ranke also encased historians in a priesthood, worshipping piles of documents largely inaccessible to the public, often discouraging anyone without a PhD. from hazarding an opinion. The extra cost of printing twenty or thirty pages of bibliography per book is now a cost which modern publishing can ill afford, making modern scholarship a heavier task for the average graduate student because the depth of his scholarship is measured by the number of citations, incidentally "turning off" the public about history. All that seems quite unnecessary since primary source links could be provided independently (and to everyone) on the Internet at negligible cost. And supplied not merely to the scholar, but to any interested reader, providing enjoyable rare documents at home, no need to labor through citations to get at documents in a locked archive.

The general history reader now must remain content with tertiary overviews, and a few brilliant secondary ones, because document fragility bars public access to primary papers; but many might enjoy reading primary sources if they were physically more available. The general reader also needs lists of "suggested reading", instead of the "garlands of bids", as one wit describes bibliography. If you glance through this evening's presentation book, you see I have begun to include separate internet links to both secondary as well as primary sources, because the bibliographies of the secondaries lead to the primaries. Unfortunately, you must fire up a computer to access these treasures. The day fast approaches when every scholar can carry a portable computer with two screens, one displays the historian's commentary while the second screen displays related source documents. It seems likely that history on paper will persist in some form because it is cheaper, but also because e-books make it hard to jump around. Even newspapers are encountering this obstacle. E-books are sweeping the field in books of fiction because fiction is linear. But non-fiction wanders around, even though the distinction is often unappreciated by computer designers.

* * * A third and final group of threes must confess some traps and dangers of history writing. First, on a technical level. I linked primary documents already on the Internet to the appropriate commentary within my blog. In those early days of enthusiasm, volunteers were eager to post source material into the ether, just asking for someone to read it. I had linked up Philadelphia Reflections to nearly a thousand citations when the invincible flaw exposed itself. Historians were eager to post source documents, but not so eager to maintain them. One link after another was dropped by its author, producing a broken link for everyone else. The Internet tried to locate something which wasn't there, slowing the postings to a pitiful speed. Reluctantly, I went through my web site, removing broken links and removing most links. Maybe linking was a good idea, but it didn't work. There is thus no choice but to look for institutional repositories for historical linkage, and the funding to pay for maintaining it. It is not feasible to free-load, although only recently it seemed to be.

This first pratfall assumed technology would provide more short-cuts than in fact it would. A second warning attaches to a quotation from Machiavelli, ordinarily remembered as a schemer, not a philosopher.

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.
That's often for the best. But regardless of whether ideas are good or bad, new ones all jump through the same hoop, so earnest virtue does not always triumph. Von Ranke was not a Scot, but he showed us how Many a Mickle -- Makes a Muckle. Machiavelli showed us that hard work alone does not always succeed.

But as a third and concluding point, it was Michelangelo who put his finger right on the final crux of history: The sculptor made the wry comment that sculpting is easy, just carve away the stone you don't want. It is a great fallacy to assume that ancient history can be isolated from current politics, or even to believe that history teaches the present. It is just the other way around. Just as Michelangelo felt statues were "prisoners of the stone" from which it was carved, insights and generalizations of history emerge from a huge mass of unsorted primary documents. The process of writing history is one of discarding documents which fail to support a certain conclusion, often those which send inconvenient messages to modern politics. Carried too far, de-selecting inconvenient documentary sources amounts to destroying alternative viewpoints. What the author chooses to discard, is then more important than what he chooses to include. Unless other linkages are consciously maintained, they soon enough disappear by themselves.

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Originally published: Thursday, December 20, 2012; most-recently modified: Thursday, June 06, 2019