Americans love history. One has only to look at the best-seller book list to realize this. There, alongside the self-help guides, the Harry Potter volumes, and the endless versions of Chicken Soup for the Soul is David McCollough's lengthy biography of John Adams, which tens of thousands of Americans have chosen for their summer reading. Which recent movies seem to win the hearts of the public? Often it is the ones set at great historic moments, such as "Saving Private Ryan," "Schindler's List," "Gladiator," and "Titanic." Public television has had tremendous success airing historical documentaries, especially those, such as Ken Burns' series on the Civil War, that feature voice-over readings of letters, diaries, and speeches from the time. Likewise, any number of cable TV stations have found that there is a huge audience for documentary biographies of prominent people, past and present.
We gravitate to works about history for many reasons. First, the past is a fascinating place to visit. It was fundamentally different from today. People behaved differently, had radically different ways of doing things. They lacked our technology and yet they shared our humanity. We wonder how we would have behaved under similar circumstances. The experiences of those whose stories have survived, whether they were nurses on the battlefields of the Civil War or statesmen creating the Constitution, expand our knowledge of the human experience.
Second, we love history because it tells the tale of events that really happened. It includes wonderful stories of heroism and of dumb luck, stories of evil villains and of trying times. This is perhaps why so many people hope for the words "based on a true story" on any historical novel or movie.
Third, it is not only the stories that have withstood the test of time. Often it is the very words of the people, recorded in their own handwriting. One can, for example, touch the page of a diary in which one's greatgrandmother wrote as a young girl and read her excited descriptions of a dance held long ago. There is nothing intervening between her mind and that of her reader. The page on which the young girl wrote may be yellowed but the words are unchanged. She may long since have grown old and died, but the girl's voice lives on. The diary becomes a time machine that draws one back into a distant time. Millions of such primary sources, written by the famous and the not-so-famous, are readily available and readers often find them irresistible.
Children share this same interest in the past for many of the same reasons. In catalogs of Halloween costumes one finds innumerable knights in shining armor and medieval princesses. Children enjoy stories about kids long ago in such books as the American Girls and My Name is America series. The Little House books have touched a nerve among children ever since they were written. "Tell me about when you were a little girl, Mommy" is a common refrain. Children seem to take great pleasure in recognizing that the world existed long before they arrived and that it is far older and far bigger than they can imagine.
Ironically, though, Americans don't seem to love history classes. I was recently sitting on an airplane next to a young man who had just finished high school. He was telling me about his desire to travel to Europe and to see the world. He had a book of historical fiction open in his lap. But when I told him that I was a history professor he groaned. "Let me guess, it was your least favorite subject" I offered. "Well, it wasn't the worst..." he said, but he couldn't hide his dislike of the courses he had taken. Why is this so often true? Think about your own experience of history in high school. Unfortunately, I think that mine is not uncommon. My teachers taught directly from the textbook and tested us using worksheets that asked such questions as "Which of the following individuals was not present at the Seneca Falls Convention? …