October 20, 2010
A Bridge to My Father’s World

When I think back through my childhood, the default image for my father is of him reading.  After dinner, he’d nearly always be reading.  On family car trips, he and mom would trade off driving; when off-duty, mom would knit, and dad would read.  Don’t get me wrong.  He wasn’t cold, distant, anything like that.  I was truly lucky to grow up with a loving, warm, and intelligent father, and he was as engaged in our lives as one could hope he’d be.  But in my mind’s eye I see him, in his free moments, with a book in one hand and a red felt-tip pen in the other.

My father is a professor of history, and now that I’m becoming a historian too I increasingly realize why he read, and probably still reads, nearly all the time (he brings books on vacation and actually finishes them).  There is a vast amount of stuff and knowledge out there, and we’re finding more all the time, but even more importantly we’re finding new ways to interpret historical data.  History writing is always contextual, and is almost always a better reflection of the time in which it was written instead of the time it’s about.

The cause of that rather long-winded introduction is the book I’m currently reading for a class: William J. Gilmore’s Reading Becomes a Necessity: Material and Cultural Life in Rural New England, 1780-1835.  This is a book I could never have imagined myself reading, much less enjoying, two years ago, but I now find myself at least admiring the work.  It’s a study of literacy and mass culture in the rural Upper Connecticut River valley in the decades following the Revolution.  Published in 1989, and in the manner of much postwar social history, it looks at small communities to extrapolate lessons about larger themes and processes, derives much of its information from material culture studies, and relies heavily on the then-developing power of the digital database.  In short, it’s a classic of what historians might call the “late new social history.”

That said, this is definitely a book for academic historians.  As good as Gilmore’s writing is, Reading Becomes a Necessity is over 500 pages long and full of tables and strikingly poorly-designed maps.  As a historian I can appreciate the work of sifting data from wills, newspapers, library inventories, deeds, and so forth to extract vital information on things like literacy rates as rural communities shift from subsistence to commercial economies.  Gilmore’s linking of the influence of the market economy and reading is potent stuff, especially when one remembers that he wrote his book at the crest of the Reagan era.  If you’re going to let business run the show, he seems to say, at least teach people to read so they have a chance to participate.  But don’t be surprised when they learn other things, too.  Gilmore is, however, no Philbrick, nor an Ambrose or a Kearns Goodwin: he might be a fine academic writer, but you’re not going to want to pick this up at the airport to help pass the time on that flight to Phoenix.

All of which leads me back to my father.  When I read these long, dense, academic books I feel a new sort of kinship with him.  As I’ve started studying history, our weekly phone conversations have changed; we’re still family, we still love each other, but there’s also a camaraderie, a professional fellowship between us these days.  I’ve never felt a distance between myself and my father, but now that I’m gaining a historical worldview and skill set, learning to appreciate a book for its approach and context as much as for a stirring narrative, I feel like I understand him better.  Maybe this is what tradesmen, hundreds of years ago, felt when they apprenticed to their fathers: we’re kin, but we’re comrades, too.  Reading is a necessary skill in the modern commercial world, but it turns out it’s a good family skill, too.

This What-Are-You-Reading-Wednesday post was written by Erik Peterson,  a research intern at the Indiana Humanities Council.  He is a graduate student in the Public History program at IUPUI.

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