12.28.2010

what i'm reading: history online

Disunion is a blog about the US civil war, the bloodiest, deadliest (to Americans) war in US history. The New York Times began running Disunion, as far as I can tell, on October 31, 2010, with this preamble.
The story of the Civil War will be told in this series as a weekly roundup and analysis, by Jamie Malanowski, of events making news during the corresponding week 150 years ago. Written as if in real time, this dispatch will, after this week, appear every Monday. Additional essays and observations by other contributors, along with maps, images, diaries and so forth, will be published several times a week.

A US history teacher writes about Disunion:
Imagine modern web coverage of the U.S. in the early 1860s, day-by-day! I often find that our history textbooks, even the really good ones like Brinkley and Foner, fail to provide students with a sense of the immediacy and uncertainty of the historical present, often because that is exactly what makes for quality history...the distance and perspective to see things more clearly (or at least more fully). Nevertheless, imagining the historical present is a valuable skill for teachers to develop in students. . . . It's a really great resource for students to see into the fog of war and the unpredictability of the future.

I'd very much like to read this, but I'm a bit intimidated. I would have to go back to the beginning - I can't do it any other way. I discovered the blog in early December, but still haven't read more than a few words. It feels like I've already missed too much to start now.

I'm still reading The Diary of Samuel Pepys online. Samuel Pepys was a 17th Century protoblogger: he kept a private journal chronicling both his personal life and the political and social goings-on if his era. It's one of a very few firsthand accounts of British or European history of its time, and the only one so richly detailed and wonderfully readable. The Diary contains eyewitness accounts of major events in British history, such as the Great Fire of London, the plague and a war with the Dutch. Equally important, it's a window - a sharply focused, vivid window - into the standards, values and mores of another world.

In 2003, a web designer and all-around creative guy named Phil Gyford started uploading a diary entry each day, beginning on January 1, 343 years to the day after Pepys (pronounced "peeps") began writing his diary. Hundreds of people read the The Diary each day, and a small, loyal group of readers annotate the entries for further edification.

I've been reading The Diary since the beginning. Although I'm no longer part of the commenting group, I know many of the annotators online and know them all through their copious and fascinating entries. Many in the Pepys crew are beginning to spy sadness on the horizon: Pepys stopped writing his Diary in 1669, which translates to 2012 for us.

[For more on Samuel Pepys Diary: I first blogged about it here (and have mentioned it several times since); here is Pepys' Wikipedia entry; and here's the "about" from the Pepys Diary blog.]

So I'd like to read Disunion - to get caught up, then read it daily or weekly, the way I read Pepys - but do I really need one more thing to do?

But can I resist?

3 comments:

johngoldfine said...

Boswell's Johnson is free online via Gutenberg.org and offers some of the charm of Pepys, though Pepys was writing in shorthand and for heaven knows who, while Boswell had a clear audience and that makes it a bit less charming, voyeuristic, and fascinating.

laura k (aka L-girl) said...

What makes the Pepys Diary online special is being presented in daily diary format.

IIRC, Phil Gyford wanted to read the whole Diary, but was intimidated by its length. He decided to post it as he would like to read it, one entry at a time. Et voila, a gigantic, multi-volume work becomes manageable and accessible.

johngoldfine said...

That is a neat idea--I've read excerpts but certainly never dared the whole of S. Pepys.