Last week, The Jewish Home L.A. ran my review of the new book, Letters From Mir. Of the books I’ve reviewed professionally in the last couple months, it was the one that surprised me most, on more than one level.
When I read the cover blurb, I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about the book. I warmed up a bit while reading the introductions (yes, that’s plural), but was completely won over once I hit the actual letters. These form the centerpiece of the volume, and they consist of those by and addressed to a young rabbi and yeshiva student, Rabbi Ernest Gugenheim during the tumultuous period that preceded the Second World War.
If you want to read about that book, you can do so here, but my favorite thing about the book touches on a topic that can be applied more widely: the importance of primary sources in understanding the past.
Most of what the average American knows about the past is based on their elders’ memories (which change over time) or upon “folk wisdom” or cultural memory (which is even more unreliable), or even fiction set in the past (which can be useful in its way, but only if the author did thorough research on the period in question and the reader understands that some liberties may have been taken). Moreover, each of those methods of learning about the past relies on interpretations of events which are very, very subjective. Even if the events happened to a particular speaker, the way they make meaning from the events 10, 20, 50 years later affects how they describe it. This self-editing can cause them to leave out details, change them, condense time, and so on.
When we get the opportunity to read letters, records, diary entries, and the like, dating from the years we want to learn about, we can interpret the data for ourselves. Yes, the authors of letters and diaries are biased, but their biases are often very clear — and can often add to our understanding of those times and places. We can ask, what is it about that person that would have affected their point of view. And more importantly, we’ve gotten rid of one of the layers of commentary and bias that would have appeared if the same events were described in a traditional history book by a scholar or an author.
I’d love more insights on this topic from readers, writers, and historians out there. If you’ve got something to share, please add a comment!