I feel like all my life I’ve been searching for something that challenges me in the right way.
I like university, but third year level papers left me feeling a bit like I was pushing up against the walls. Like there was something on the other side I couldn’t reach. When I was a kid, I loved volcanoes. I read a lot about volcanoes – I was really into a lot of stuff, but natural disasters were big for me. After palaeontologist, my career goals were vulcanologist or storm-chaser. And I was an anxious little kid, so go figure. I read everything I could about volcanoes. But it wasn’t long before the stuff I read started to repeat itself. And this annoyed me. Granted, I was reading science books for kids, not geology textbooks or anything, so there was more out there than I knew, but I felt as if I had reached the edge of things. There was more to know, but it wasn’t available to me, and I was frustrated.
I feel the same sort of way about popular history books and even undergraduate history classes. There’s a lot more to read and a lot more to learn, but you reach a point where you feel like nothing’s digging deep enough for you. You’re not getting your teeth into anything. The people in your undergraduate tutorials don’t really care or didn’t do the readings, and there’s a deep frustration that you’re not getting at the real meat of anything.
Postgraduate seminars are instantly a different sort of thing. People are only there because they want to be there. They’re actually interested in the field. They have their own interests within the wider field of history, they share their dissertation topic and you’re keen to know more even if it’s not your wheelhouse. And that’s a fascinating thing too – history is just so broad that you can have a class full of people and everyone has their own pet area they’re interested in. This guy’s into labour history in the US, someone else is into the history of healthcare in Europe, someone else is writing about exploration. And me? I’m into death.
They call it a “cohort”, the class that goes through the same papers together. There are only around twenty of us, which feels like very few, but it’s a good number. You can get a good discussion going. Even when the matter you’re discussing is dry and boring, you can bond over that and then still have thoughts and disagreements about the piece itself. I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to learn about a subject with people who actually want to be there.
There’s that excitement when your supervisor mentions a journal that has just what you’re looking for. There’s unfettered access to JSTOR. There’s Anglo-Saxon manuscripts on microfiche. It’s nerdy as fuck and I am excited about it.
I am finally feeling challenged. I mean, sure, I feel challenged when I read something about quantum physics, but I don’t have the background for that; it’s more confusion than anything else. I don’t think in terms of numbers, but in stories, and so history is a good fit for me.
Beyond that, the concept of recording the past, of remembering, is important to me. You know the Eagleman line about the three deaths?
“There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.”
And there’s Terry Pratchett:
“Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?”
“No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…”
There’s something holy in remembering the dead, in spending some time thinking about individual people who left the world centuries ago. How astounded they might be, to think we were reading their written complaint to a copper merchant. How something that for them was such a mundane part of life can be such a window into another world for us.
They say if you need something done, to give it to a busy person. I am hoping this proves true for me, and being busy makes me more likely to write in my spare time, not less. This year is my year of hustle. My word-of-the-year is “CLIMB” and that’s what I intend to do. Stick with me; I’ve been neglecting this blog over the past two months, but damnit, I’m going to do better.