“How did it get so late so soon? It's night before it's afternoon.” - Dr. Seuss
by Jamie Lutton
- The Capitol Hill Times -
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” wrote L.P. Hartly. This is the first sentence in his novel, “The Go-Between,” published in 1953.
I noticed that one of my favorite history reference books, “The Past Is a Foreign Country,” written by David Lowenthal, and published in 1999 by Cambridge University Press, is going to be re-released in a few months in a revised edition. I wasn’t a history major in college, but I enjoyed reading history books, finding this one to be valuable when reading other historians or archeologists as a reference and guide to “the past” as we know it.
This sizable history book makes a great case that we misunderstand and misinterpret the past due to our prejudices and lack of complete knowledge, which is lost to us forever.
The author distinguishes between the past that is utterly lost to us, and the past that we recreate from our own prejudices to suit our own needs, as we examine the buildings, landscapes, and books left behind. When we try to recreate the past, either in history books, through the interpenetration of ancient cultures, or by restoring buildings built a few decades or Millennia ago, we usually get major details wrong, or interpret cultures as being “decadent” or “advanced” according to our prejudices at the time.
“The Past Is a Foreign Country” is encyclopedic in scope, and is crammed with opinionated information. It’s a good first book for the amateur interested in the fields of history and memory, as well as the flaws in both.
The first thing that the author points out is that the perception of past as a different sort of time came about in the West during the Enlightenment in the 18th century, when intellectuals began to differentiate the present from the past, and to see it as a different sort of place, that real changes had occurred.
The book seizes the reader in the first chapter with a discussion of the reconstruction of the Parthenon in the 19th century, and all the egregious errors that were made at that time which are clearly seen as wrong now that know more about Classical Athens.
I was excited to see that this book was going to be reissued for the practical reason that the older edition will now drop in price for the casual reader (now it’s well over $10, and scarce locally-used), and the newer edition will have expanded ideas and new insights from the author.
I liked this book so much that 12 years ago, I bought 5 copies new to give as presents to everyone in my family who liked to read history for pleasure.
Either by picking up the new edition or a soon-to-be-cheaper copy of the old one, “The Past Is a Foreign Country” would make a fine present for a history buff (yeah, and Christmas shopping is best done months early), or anyone’s’ permanent history library.
Another book not to be missed is “Pronouncing Shakespeare: The Globe Experiment,” by David Crystal, also published in 1999. It’s an account of the production of a performance of the play “Twelfth Night,” done in the original dialect of the early 17th century.
Like “The Past is a Foreign Country,” “Pronouncing Shakespeare: The Globe Experiment” discusses how difficult it is to reconstruct the London dialect of that time. When we read Shakespeare’s works aloud, no modern performer, either English or American, sounds like actors from this time. The accent of the early 17th century sounds closer to the West Virginian American accent, which is linguistically directly descended from early English colonists. Though, an Australian hearing the production thought that it sounded “cod-Irish with some West Country” mixed in, which may be much the same thing. This dialect of Shakespeare and his contemporaries is separated from us not by geographic distance, but time, and is very hard for untrained ears to understand.
“Pronouncing Shakespeare: The Globe Experiment” makes the rediscovery and reconstruction of this accent exciting, since many want to hear Shakespeare as he wrote it, in the time’s precise dialect. This book is in the form of a journal of the production, with the linguistic part lucidly written for a beginner. Certain passages make more sense in the original dialect, the rhyming and puns more lucid.
For example, Shakespeare in the 17th century gets a little dirty in the play “As You Like It,” because “hour” used be pronounced to sound like “whore.” Pronunciation has changed, and the pun is lost completely, leaving the reader to wonder what the cause was for laughter. Reading these books and others like them will help to bridge the gap.
[The fool] says very wisely, ‘It is ten o’clock:
Thus we may see,’ quoth he, ‘how the world wags:
Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more ’twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.’ When I did hear
The motley fool thus moral on the time,
My lungs began to crow like chanticleer,
That fools should be so deep-contemplative,
And I did laugh sans intermission.