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January 18, 2005

Should History be Written in Hypertext?

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards:

Have you ever noticed the sheer difficulty of writing history? I don’t mean this in the ordinary sense of literary effort, but rather in the sense of how difficult it is to physically and mentally organize the subject matter.

Let me give a small illustration of what I mean. I’m currently working my way through a very interesting book, Judith Herran’s “The Formation of Christendom” (Princeton University Press, 1987). However, rather than being written chronologically, each chapter of this book focuses, essay-like, on a particular aspect of Late Antiquity (roughly, the period from Constantine to Charlemagne). This allows for a good deal of concentration and single-subject analysis that would be tough to deliver in a strict chronological treatment (e.g., on the development of monasticism around the Mediterranean). But it leaves me wondering about the interrelationships between one essay topic to another. For example, I came across several isolated observations that concerned roughly the same period of time.

On page 45 we find:

By the time of Augustus (27 B.C. – A.D. 141), Rome had incorporated the Hellenistic states of Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, and Pharaonic Egypt. As a result of these additions, the empire may have had a population of around 50 million, a figure that appears to have remained stable until the disastrous decline of the third century. [Emphasis added]

On page 46:

Under Diocletian (284-305), laws to fix prices, ensure the continuity of craft guilds, and guarantee the succession of sons to their fathers’ senatorial duties attempted to stabilize the economy on traditional lines. P. 46 [Emphasis added]

On page 60:

From a decision to abandon human company and withdraw from the world (called anachoresis in Greek, from which “anchorite” derives), the pursuit of ascetic ideals followed naturally. Disciples of the deity Serapis had developed this practice through the custom of becoming a recluse (katachos) dedicated to the god, and adherents of other pagan cults and of Judaism adopted similar techniques. But among Christians this sort of withdrawal became very widespread in the late third century. [Emphasis added]

On page 65:

It was within monastic circles that celibacy was first elevated to a commanding position, from which it came to dominate the Christian world. St. Ammoun (ca. 295-352) is known as one of the first Desert Fathers to have lived with his wife for 18 years in total abstinence. This occurred as the result of an arranged marriage from which Ammoun could not escape. Instead, he persuaded his bride that they should lead an ascetic existence as brother and sister, avoiding all contact. Ammoun, however, later felt the need to withdraw from the world completely and left his “sister” to settle in the Nitrian desert. There other young men fleeing from exactly the same tradition of arranged marriages…joined him in ascetic pursuits.[Emphasis added]

I don’t know about you, but I began to wonder…gee, do you suppose these developments are interrelated? Let’s see…decline in population, military and economic weakness, imposition of greater state control (no doubt in part designed to encourage higher rates of reproduction), resentful young men taking to the desert and devoting themselves to a deliberately uneconomic and anti-reproductive agenda…sort of adds up to me.

Perhaps Ms. Herran would consider such materialist explanations for the behavior of the Desert Fathers impertinent. (She appears to be primarily a religious historian). But it’s also possible that her use of thematic essays to organize her material simply makes such cross-theme connections hard to draw.

And that’s only a simple example of the problem. After all, to truly understand an era (it seems to me), one would need to both be aware of and be able to see the interconnections between its political, economic, military, cultural, and religious histories. Heck, I’ve even started getting remarkably interested in each era’s agricultural practices and productivity.

And how many histories you’ve read recently manage to cover all that terrain while still giving you a reasonably detailed sense of events in their chronological and geographic particulars? Mostly, it seems like you have to read five or six different types of history books (or maybe fifty or sixty) and then perform your own synthesis.

Could one do better? I’m beginning to think it may not be physically possible to cover all that material within the essentially linear structure of a traditional narrative. Maybe it could be done by moving to the web and using lots of links. Alternatively, you might be able to make it work using a database. I’ve actually considered going through all the books I’ve read in the past six months and chopping them up into records that could be sorted by time, place and subject matter, and then making the resulting entries avaible via the web.

That way, people could finally begin to get a handle on the interrelatedness of things. Which, I guess, is what studying history is all about.


Friedrich von Blowhard

posted by Friedrich at January 18, 2005


I guess one really needs a mind like Fernand Braudel's, in THE MEDITERRANEAN WORLD or the CIVILIZATION AND CAPITALISM series, to encompass everything. I'm sure Herran would say that all facets of history will be apparent simultaneously at the "apocatastasis" (final restitution of all things at the appearance of the Messiah, an idea extended by Origen, 185-254). Hey, third century again!

Posted by: winifer skattebol on January 18, 2005 9:48 PM

You have identified a real problem. Most of us who read a lot of history experience the same frustration, confusion, and eventual exasperation when reading books about temporally parallel but topically discrete themes.

At a minor scale, I experienced this yesterday while finishing reading "Pre-Raphelites at Home" by Pamela Todd. She dealt with the period (in round numbers) 1850-95 and a cast of Pre-Raphaelites, their girlfriends, their mistresses, their wives and their children. And ditto a number of associated characters, especially John Ruskin and William Morris. The book zig-zagged through time, focusing on a sub-set of people and a limited period in each chapter. Nevertheless, after having set the book aside for a month or so, I had serious trouble re-orienting myself, though four pages of annotated dramatis personae (sp?) was helpful.

Some sort of linkage mechanism might work at some point in the future. Actually making it work might make you rich beyond dreams if you could pull it off, Friedrich.

But there are problems. Consider copyright and author's fees. Ted Nelson spent a good stretch of his life, starting in 1960, pushing his "Xanadu" project. The concept was a pre-internet computerized linkage system that would debit a user's account (or perhaps bill him) an amount of money related to what was being linked to. The internet does have subscriber and download-fee based sites (and perhaps other mechinisms) whereby the content creator's labor is compensated. Maybe this could be extended to something like a "vitual downloadable book" whereby paying for the download would also compensate authors of the sources linked to by the "book".

Another tough nut to crack is the fact that "real" books are usually a lot more convenient to read than computer-based books, and easier on the eyes. This is a problem technology might someday resolve (imagine plastic pages such as one finds in photo albums that contain a surface of LCDs or something futuristic of that ilk).

Enough blather from me. And as I almost always remark, "very interesting post, Friederich!"

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 18, 2005 10:03 PM

Well, there are a lot of timelines out there, vatying in range of subjects. I think Will & Ariel used them.

There are three topics here.

1)History:Four playwrights, and the conditions in Athens at the time of their careers.

2)Meta-History(?): The relationship between the form & content of the work of the four, and the change in conditions in Athens. Deep & controversial subject. Most historians attempt to avoid causal theorizing. I think Spengler and Toynbee & Hegel are discredited, but what do I know. Anyway, very difficult.

3) And what do the previous two studies tell us about Shakespeare & Elizabethan England? And what very general rules can we obtain to apply to the analysis of our own time?

Nearly impossible. But if history has a use, and maybe it needs no more justification than paleontology, this is where it lies.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on January 18, 2005 10:24 PM

I had another thought; even in the
seemingly anecdotal collection of
chapters, isn't the continuity still there underneath? What if we look at it like playing Bach on the violin: you're playing along and suddenly there is an accented note; then you play some more and there's another accented note; and after a while you
realize that the accented notes form
a melody by themselves. So couldn't
all the references to the 3rd century
be the accented notes?

Posted by: wnifer skattebol on January 18, 2005 11:06 PM

For a version of the integrated history that you are looking for, I would recommend the work of the historian William McNeill. I read his masterpiece The Rise of the West a long time ago, and almost became a historian because of it. In my memory of the book, it's principal theme is the interconnectedness of the world's peoples and cultures, and how contacts between peoples have been the principal motive force in cultural change over millenia. McNeill's other books are less encyclopedic and far-ranging, but they deal with subjects such as disease in a broad and interconnected manner.

McNeill has just written his memoirs, which will be published soon. One of the highlights of my student career at the University of Chicago was taking a class with McNeill. He would lecture for ninety minutes at a time without notes, without a break, and in the most inspiring and creative manner.

Posted by: Mike Eversmeyer on January 19, 2005 12:23 AM

To play Mr. Superficial for a moment ...

Although creating cross-reference-able databases often seems like a great idea -- and in many ways it is a great idea -- one of the challenges of such projects is the question, "How to draw the reader through." It seems as if the reader (or whatever you want to call the person who's exploring the material) needs a kind of goal. Maybe even the kind of goal that linear narratives sometimes promise and sometimes even deliver.

I've thought a wee bit about all this because I followed the CD-ROM business years ago. Remember them? CD's that were full of information and graphics ... Going to be a big revolution ... Publishers invested tons of dough in them, and created dozens and dozens of products ... Big floperoo, especially when the Web superseded apparently everything ...

Anyway, I yakked some with people who made the things and played with a number of the products. I only found a handful of them that struck me as successful. Even the most heavily-produced ones often just sat there. Huge heaps of data, sometimes even intelligently organized. But with little there to drawn you in and through. I thought it was maybe worth nothing that the CD-ROMS I liked best were the Robert Winter discussions of various classical-music pieces. As good as Winter himself was, what drew you through was the music itself.

Maybe we just haven't figured out how to make nonlinearity compelling, and maybe someday we will figure out how to do so. But at the moment it still seems to be a challenge. I don't konw about anyone else but I have the same problem with info-graphics. There they sit, often representing a lot of work and thought. And my tendency is to look at them for a few secs and think, Hmm, that sure looks nicely packaged. And then I skip it. I seldom spend the kind of time exploring nonlinear material that it no doubt sometimes deserves, where I'll often spend a lot of time with linear material, even though I'll often do so in a nonlinear manner.

Maybe this is just an artifact of me growing up in a linear world. On the other hand, maybe there's something about being forced to organize your material in a linear way that -- whatever the other drawbacks -- can force a writer/composer/whatever to make it snap into focus. Good writers (composers, directors, etc) know how to use point of view, suspense, humor, etc to keep us alert and looking forward to what's next. Material that's been organized database-style -- though it certainly couldn't be more easily accessed -- often just seems to sit there.

So I don't know. Maybe a nice if imperfect approach would be to supply linear and nonlinear together: a linear story, accompanied by timelines, graphics, hyperlinked database, etc. On the other hand, what's the diff between that and simply plunging into the library and exploring everything on the subject by yourself?

Tough one! But a great question.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 19, 2005 2:34 AM

I tried doing a real-time history of Rathergate with tons of links:

It's hurriedly-written (with little analysis), but may prove a useful resource in the future for someone.

There's also Chrenkoff's Good News From Iraq - no masterpiece of history writing, sure, but it's bound to be useful in the future to historians.

Posted by: Scott Campbellat Blithering Bunny on January 19, 2005 7:16 AM

I don't think it's really possible.

For "The Book" project (doesn't everyone have one?), I've been involved in a bit of writing/re-writing history. One of the central goals of this project has been not to be closed-minded, in an authorial dictator-of-my-own-universe way, to perspectives on events that characters I'm writing may have. Eventually it became obvious to me that the only way to avoid writing an alternate history that is totally open to interpretation is not to construct a narrative at all, but rather to create a timeline of events. Unfortunately, fact sheets are not compelling history, and do nothing to really capture the narratives that do exist. We could set aside three categories of history: The facts alone, a narrative derived from facts, and the meta-knowledge that comes from having read many histories and realizing that, oftentimes, contradictory narratives are simultaneously true.
As a "hypertext" skeptic I would say that consciously seeking to create such a hypertextual history is a mistake. I'd much rather read the one idea of ten people than ten half-believed ideas of one person. Besides, isn't it trouble enough writing one deep history book?

Posted by: . on January 20, 2005 1:51 AM

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