What can I read to improve my knowledge of history and world events so that I can better enjoy the classics of the Western cannon?
January 24, 2012 4:03 PM   Subscribe

I am trying to read more 'classics' this year and find I am continually running to Wikipedia for background on things the authors assume I should know. What books can I read to round out my general education somewhat and fill in some of these gaps?

Some examples of the sorts of things I am talking about:

- I was reading a book that had all of Da Vinci's paintings featured with some brief notes on each one. They included stuff like "Also known as The Dreyfus Madonna, this oil painting has been attributed to Verrocchio and Lorenzo di Credi, as well as Leonardo. The anatomy of the Christ Child is so poor as to discourage firm attribution by most critics, while some believe that it is a work of Leonardo's youth. This attribution was made by Suida in 1929." So then I had to go look up Verrocchio and di Credi and Sueda...

- In a book about Benjamin Franklin that was otherwise very clear and detailed in its explanatory information, there was "On his return to America he played an honorable part in the Paxton affair, through which he lost his seat in the Assembly" so I had to go look up the 'Paxton Affair.'

It just seemed like there were always little references like these that I was scrambling to go learn more about. I guess that means it's in the discipline of history that I am weak; my degree is in English literature and was only about specific things. So, does anybody have suggestions for some good stuff to read (preferably free or from the Kindle store) to get me up to speed a little so I am not running to Wikipedia all the time?
posted by JoannaC to Education (20 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
The internet and resources like Wikipedia are as close as we have ever come to having it all at your fingertips in a single volume. Keep doing what you are doing. We used to have to go research and find all that wonderful organized information in the stacks, if the library even had them.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 4:24 PM on January 24, 2012 [6 favorites]

This sort of thing is a GREAT use of Wikipedia. Before Wiki was around you'd have looked it up in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

I don't know that either of these things make you "weak". I'm a history nut and I've never heard of the Paxton Affair. I love art and recently traveled to Italy purely to look at exactly this sort of thing and don't know Verrocchio or Credi.

A good popular nonfiction work can help you get a deeper knowledge base about this stuff, but it sounds like you are already doing this sort of thing. If the Paxton Affair sounds interesting, maybe your next book should be about 18th century American politics. If you want to know more about how art is attributed to old masters, maybe look for a book about that.
posted by Sara C. at 4:29 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

You could try reading intro textbooks to art history and European and American history for the basic facts, but that would be pretty boring and would only scratch the surface (this is why there are professional historians and art historians!). I agree with halfbuckaroo; Wikipedia is an amazing democratizing resource for exactly this reason. And keep reading as much as you can-- you'll never stop coming across things you don't know, but with practice you'll get faster at categorizing and processing new knowledge.
posted by oinopaponton at 4:30 PM on January 24, 2012

The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstein and the other two in the Knowledge triology, The Seekers and The Creators are a very good start.
posted by Duffington at 4:36 PM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

So then I had to go look up Verrocchio and di Credi and Sueda...

No, you didn't. The sentence is perfectly understandable without knowing that. What you do is, mentally file those names under "obscure Italian Renaissance painters" (or maybe, if you are not so confident of your knowledge of art, "Italian renaissance painters who are probably not as famous an Leonardo da Vinci, since they have never had a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle named for them") and then if you ever run across their names again, which you may not, you already know a little bit about them.

so I had to go look up the 'Paxton Affair.'

Again, no, you didn't, unless of course you are curious. After all, the book is about Franklin, and if that's the only mention of it in the entire book and there are no further details about it, you know it is a very minor event in Franklin's life. You just mentally file the fact that "the Paxton Affair" was something Franklin was peripherally involved in, and so if you ever see it mentioned again, you know that Franklin behaved "honorably" in it.

Each time you see things like this mentioned but not explained in detail, you build up more and more mental notes about them. Eventually the implications you have gleaned fit together and suddenly you know something that you didn't really know until the final piece dropped in. It feels good enough that you keep reading, in search of the next hit.
posted by kindall at 4:42 PM on January 24, 2012 [21 favorites]

I'd also like to weigh in on the "weak" perspective. With a little re-framing, this is one of the great joys of reading. Once upon a time, you had to heave yourself up and go to the library to learn more. How lucky we are to be able to click through to a deeper understanding!
posted by thinkpiece at 4:52 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

My friend, do not ever try to read Foucault's Pendulum.

Seriously, though. I consider myself a pretty knowledgeable, well-read guy, and I would have had to look up the things you mentioned if I wasn't satisfied with the understanding gleaned from context. Those are really obscure references. I mean, and I had to google him, Suida isn't even a painter but an art academic working in the 20s. Unless you're a serious da Vinci scholar, why would you ever have heard of him?

There is no background reading that will prepare you for all references in every field at that level of obscurity. This is why it's awesome that we have Google now.
posted by zjacreman at 5:02 PM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Actually, do try to read Foucault's Pendulum. It's an interesting book. But the reference-chasing will keep you busy for literal years.
posted by zjacreman at 5:10 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, in terms of reference-chasing, finding good (read lots of reviews first!) annotated editions of books can really cut down on the amount of time you have to spend looking stuff up.
posted by naturalog at 5:21 PM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I can think of no better response then this. Shakespeare is a never a bad place to start.
posted by KeSetAffinityThread at 5:48 PM on January 24, 2012

Oh but to answer the actual question, sorry, sorry. Well not an answer, but I think you're doing it right. But perhaps Russell's History of Western Philosophy may fill in a bit in that area.
posted by sammyo at 5:59 PM on January 24, 2012

Russell was many things, but a historian of philosophy was not one of them. That is a mediocre, tendentious book.
posted by thelonius at 6:04 PM on January 24, 2012

yeah, halfbuckaroo's got it. you're already doing what someone would do if they wanted to learn what you want to learn. if you want to go hardcore, then the next time you're on wiki, pick one book from the references section of whatever article you're reading, then start branching out from book to book instead of/along with continuing to look things up on wiki. there's no 1 book, or 100 books, that's going to prepare you for western civilization. just read stuff that's interesting to you.
posted by facetious at 6:37 PM on January 24, 2012

Theodor Adorno talks about this phenomenon (and no, you don't have to look him up; he's a mid 20th century German philosopher). I'm paraphrasing drastically, because I'm too lazy to look for the quote, but he basically says, One delves into reading just as one delves into a foreign language. At the beginning, nothing makes sense, the references are unclear, the terms are unclear. But gradually, constellations and interrelations begin to manifest." Nothing will ever be totally transparent, but you're good for now. Also, I'd recommend staying away from the classics. They rot your sense of proportion. Find things that decent people hate - from Burroughs to Marx to pornography - and read them as much as you can.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 7:03 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh man. Yeah, you honestly don't need to understand most of those footnotes, especially if your'e just reading things for your own intellectual enjoyment. You'll find as you read more, you'll understand more.

IF (and this is a big if, hence the capital letters) this stuff *really* annoys you and eats you, I'd recommend taking intro to Western art history, music, literature, and history courses respectively. This is one of the major pluses of a top-shelf liberal arts education: to understand the frickin' footnotes. But you wont' know ALL of the footnotes no matter what you do, because, wow, there's a lot to know out there. Which is why they created footnotes and end notes in the first place. If you knew all that stuff, you've probably already written a dissertation or gotten close or such like.

THAT SAID: if that is too expensive/too time consuming/etc. (which is perfectly understandable and true for 99.9% of us), the Internet is your friend. If switching from book to computer is too bothersome (and oh-my-deity-of-choice, the Internet made this SO MUCH EASIER), invest in an Internet-enabled tablet with an eReader application of your choice and Google as you go. I do this shamelessly.
posted by smirkette at 7:19 PM on January 24, 2012

Years ago, I read a PEANUTS strip that made a lot of sense to me (I swear this will be relevant). Lucy catches Linus reading something really difficult, like WAR AND PEACE or THE BROTHERS KARMAZOV, and comments on it. Linus says that yeah, he's really getting into it. "But don't you have trouble understanding some of the big words?" Lucy asks. Linus just shrugs and tells her, "Nah, whenever I come to a big word I don't understand, I just 'bleep' over it."

Why this is relevant to you -- try just doing what Linus did when you get to a historic reference you don't know about. 90% of the time you'll still understand what they're talking about fine. (The other 10% of the time, if your not understanding what they're referring to is making you not really understand the rest, then go look it up.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:52 PM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Agree with kindall, you don't need to look up every little thing (but if it sounds intriguing, by all means go off on a research tangent). However, a good reference of general info I found was An Incomplete Education.
posted by Rash at 8:32 AM on January 25, 2012

FWIW, stuff like An Incomplete Education and other general knowledge cram books are not going to have references to minor Renaissance painters and obscure American political scandals. It's part of what makes those books so breezy and crammable. You're not going to fall into a wiki hole inspired by some obscure thing that isn't basic middle brow conversation fodder.

If you're trying to find the most efficient way to know the bare minimum about Leonardo da Vinci and Ben Franklin without ever getting diverted into the obscure, go the cram-book/bathroom reader route.

If you already know Leonardo was an Italian Renaissance artist who painted the Mona Lisa and had a lot of fun at his drafting table, and now you want to know more than the most basic Culturally Literate Human type stuff, there's really no point to use such books.
posted by Sara C. at 9:49 AM on January 25, 2012

So this is kind weird/interesting.

I was digging around on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's website, working on a blog post I won't link to here because self-linking is against the rules.

And one of the images I decided to use was by Lorenzo di Credi! His style is reminiscent of Leonardo. Huh.

New answer to your question - if you live in a major city, and want to get more familiar with history, art history, or archaeology, go to museums! If you don't live in a major US city, make sure to check out cultural resources like this on vacations.
posted by Sara C. at 3:38 PM on January 28, 2012

It's certainly not against the rules to link to your own blog in a comment!
posted by kindall at 2:17 PM on January 30, 2012

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