The best money I spend in any given month is my digital sub to New Yorker. Each week, without fail, the magazine will feature something — more often than not, many things — that take my breath away. This week, intellectual historian Louis Menand reviews '1995: The Year the Future Began', which he uses as an opportunity to explore the nature of historicism itself; in particular, the recent trend of what he calls "one dot history".
Consider this magisterial lede:
History is the prediction of the present. Historians explain why things turned out the way they did. Since we already know the outcome, this might seem a simple matter of looking back and connecting the dots. But there is a problem: too many dots. Even the dots have dots. Predicting the present is nearly as hard as predicting the future.
And how about taking in this sublime passage before clicking through to read the whole glorious piece?
"There are many ways of agglomerating past events, parcelling up old clicks of the clock and endowing them with collective meaning. There is the concept of the historical period: the Age of Reason, the long eighteenth century (which seems like cheating; if you call something a century, you should stick to a hundred years), the Victorian era, the Cold War, the all-purpose and infinitely capacious “modernity.”
"There is the concept of the generation, an empirically specious category (as though the human race reproduced itself just once every twenty-five years) that nevertheless captures an element in everyone’s sense of identity. And, of course, there is the decade. For some obviously bogus reason, presumably because we have ten fingers, we find it natural to imagine that life assumes a completely new character every ten years.
"Centuries, generations, and decades are terms of convenience. They attach handles to the past, they give titles to books, and, most important, they put a spin on a chunk of time and differentiate it from all the rest. They give history some coherence. But the most enjoyable histories to read (and, probably, to write) are “the x that changed the world” books. These are essentially one-dot explanations. They try to make the course of human events turn on a single phenomenon or a single year. Recent works in the single-phenomenon category include books on bananas, fracking, cod (that’s correct, the fish), the Treaty of Versailles, pepper, the color mauve, and (hmm) the color indigo. (All right, who’s the baddest color?) In the single-year category, we have books on 33, 1492 (huh?), 1816 (long story involving a volcano), 1944, 1945, 1959 (even though, without going to Wikipedia, you probably can’t come up with two important things that happened in 1959), 1968, 1969, and 1989."