On February 13, 2019, sitting around a long, wooden table in the Cortland Free Library’s Art Gallery, I started talking about Vikings. About a dozen other people sat around the table with me, each person eager to jump into the conversation. One by one, we each shared about a different book we had read that month about the history of Vikings. After ninety minutes, the library staff started turning off the lights. Reluctantly, we stood up to leave and promised to see each other next month when we would all read different books about the American Civil War.
This was our second meeting of the History Buffs’ Book Club, and we are still going strong today. Unlike a traditional book club where everyone reads the same book, we select a historical topic together, but everyone chooses a different book to read. When we get together for our monthly meeting, we learn about many different books, authors, and stories.
When we met to discuss the American Civil War, I discussed a book called Apostles of Disunion by the historian Charles Dew, which is about how Confederates convinced other southern states to secede to protect slavery. Lois Meyer talked about a biography she read about Robert E. Lee. Brian Meade shared a book he read about the twelve-day manhunt for John Wilkes Booth after he murdered Abraham Lincoln. Each person usually talks about their book for five or ten minutes, but since we are all so passionate about history, there is plenty of friendly interrupting and rabbit holes we fall into together.
I wanted to start a book club devoted to history because, well, I love reading books about history. But reading can be a lonely exercise, and I wanted to share the experience with fellow history buffs. The Cortland Free Library offered to host our meetings, and ever since January 2019, we have continued to meet. Even though COVID-19 means we cannot meet in person for now, we have kept our club alive by meeting virtually on Zoom.
I know plenty of people think reading is boring, and probably even more think that history is boring, too. If that is how you feel, no problem, but let me suggest that perhaps you feel that way because you do not know where to start. Or, maybe you only think about history as homework, memorization, and multiple-choice exams. That is where a history book club might change your thinking—a group of people reading, talking, laughing, and sharing stories about history because of the sheer joy of learning about our collective past.
I can think of three important reasons why reading books about history is important. First, the internet is not enough. Sure, you can read Wikipedia articles on your phone or watch history documentaries on YouTube, but you cannot enter another world—tied together by a historian—unless you get into a book.
Second, reading books about history develops empathy. By reading about people different from yourself, those who inhabited another place and time altogether, we can walk around in their shoes, if only in our minds. When we see events from someone else’s perspective, we can begin to feel what it might be like to live another life. That allows us to understand the motivations of other people, which in turn makes us more human, more connected, more thoughtful, more caring, and more empathetic people.
Third, reading books about history helps you understand the present. Everything that happens today in our personal life, or around Cortland County, or in national politics, or in global society, is a product of history. If you want to understand the world today, talk radio, cable news, or even the newspaper will get you only so far. You must read books about history. It may not seem that the history of Vikings or the American Civil War has a direct bearing on your everyday life, but I promise you, it does. Check one out from the library today, and you will see what I mean.
Better yet, join our history book club. If you are interested, contact the Cortland Free Library for details. Or, if you would rather, start your own. I just might join too, if you will let me.
This article appeared in the Cortland Standard on October 30, 2020 in my monthly column, “A Historian’s Take.”