CHAPTER FOURTEEN THE READING OF HISTORY

EVERYONE WILL agree, theoretically, that "the horrid tale of perjury and strife, murder and spoil, which men call history," should be read. But just how?--what is the best method of attacking it? The failure to answer these questions properly explains why so much good history remains untouched on library shelves while fiction and travel are worn to tatters. History may be read for entertainment. It may be read for instruction about the past, and (though as Coleridge said, most of it is like the sternlights of a ship, illuminating only the course that is past) for guidance to the future. Above all, it may be read for inspiration. "Show me," Walter Savage Landor makes Pericles exclaim, "how great projects were executed, great advantage gained, and great calamities averted... Place History on her rightful throne, and at the sides of her Eloquence and War." But there are generalities. To the ordinary reader, even the ordinary college graduate, history is a dim uncharted sea, her ports doubtless full of rich spoils but her waters rough and her headlands forbidding. The amateur goes to the shelves. He plucks down a volume of Tacitus, and turning to the first book, finds himself wandering in a half-understood revolt against Tiberius in Pannonia (where is it?) and Germany; takes down Buckle, and is promptly plunged into a long, dullish, and clearly outdated examination of resources for investigating history; opens Prescott's Conquest of Mexico, and is daunted by what at first glance seems a highly archaeological chapter on primitive races and institutions. He concludes that those who call history fascinating are indulging in empty rhetoric.

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