Today’s Special is a guest post by Courtenay Bluebird
History did not always bore me. To put my stomach off history for an entire decade, the following three synchronous events had to coalesce: three required undergraduate history credits; an unusually hot summer; and a professor who specialized in reading for four hours straight from a textbook that was written in a soda-flat monotone.
Et voilà! I despised history as a solo subject for many years. That aversion could be quite problematic when you’re a journalist and an MFA candidate.
If plain history were mixed with a little bit of, say, literary theory, I was fine. I could stand the flat taste of historical fact if you mixed in the sociology of clothing.
Postmodern theory (Thanks a lot art school MFA!) leans heavily on the ideas of multiple histories (history is a story; a story is a flawed construct) and historicism (no history is absolute; history is a combination of different disciplines). Both of these items also sat well on my stomach, as they were light on the history and heavy on the theory.
History as a standalone subject, though, induced an intellectual queasiness in me that I tried to keep to myself. When an entire subject area makes you dyspeptic and you are trying to teach college students to be open minded— you have a real problem.
I didn’t know how to fix my history issue. I didn’t even know how to try to fix it. Worse, even, I didn’t care to repair my history problem.
Do you know who healed my rift with history?
Oh, you’ll never guess, so let me tell you.
My mail carrier, a bibliophile of intense and diverse tastes, introduced me to a catalogue filled with drool-worthy books— Bas Bleu. (Bas Bleu is the French term for a bluestocking, a 19th century word for an aristocratic, educated lady. The catalogue’s motto is “Champion for the small little book….” Don’t you love it already? )
My pip of a mail carrier introduced me to Bas Bleu and Bas Bleu gave me a formal posthumous introduction to Will Cuppy, a once popular and fascinating writer who specialized in humor and facts.
Facts. Historical facts. In fact, merely considering reading history made my stomach twitch. I thumbed-down the page and waited for the sensation to pass. It took three weeks.
After a little dithering, I ordered Cuppy’s back-in-print The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody. I fell in love with history for history’s sake again. Not historicism. Not history as a by-product of other interests. Hardcore, unrepentant history.
Will Cuppy gave me back my own birthright— a curiosity about what happened where, to whom, and how the pattern of history repeats, indefinitely, like a crazy quilt made by your colorblind aunt.
Cuppy’s intense abilities come down to one incredibly difficult literary trick.
He could take any subject— world civilization, natural sciences, home economics — and with an astonishing sleight-of-hand— reduce it to its essential elements and make it pithy. His writing style leans into this brevity, but do not be deceived— the research behind his tight sentences could, and did, take years at a stretch.
Most of his books were out of print for a few decades with the exception of Decline. Like many writers I love, Cuppy went through a brief period after his death where people forgot how wonderful he was, where editors forgot how Cuppy gave their readers the gift of knowledge with ease, where literary reviewers forgot that writers could convey history without that self-congratulatory grandiosity that causes emotional vertigo in the average reader.
After reading Cuppy, no bland recitation of facts and figures could possibly evoke the great forces that make lives and countries collide and collude. Cuppy, Bas Bleu, and my mail carrier, gave history back to me so sweetly and simply that really I can hardly believe my luck. I never thought I’d love history again.
But here is my heart on the sleeve of my t-shirt— I adore history. And here I am, late at night, relishing that soon I will lie down on my bed in a small pool of light to read an exquisite history of Sri Lanka. I’ve read it six times before. I’ll read it six times again. It’s true— history repeats itself, cover to cover and back again.
Would you like to know more about Will Cuppy? A well-written overview can be found on Wikipedia here! In fact, Cuppy is so quotable, he has his on Wiki Quote page over here.
Want some more great news? His writing is so popular again, according to the lovely Yearstricken, that my favorite Cuppy book The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody is on backorder at Amazon. Bas Bleu is still my go-to for new reprints of beloved favorites. I highly recommend that you bebop to their website here.
And, finally, do you want to read my favorite history of modern Sri Lanka, in brief? It’s gorgeous. Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family is so fine I give it as gift to new writers all the time.
Courtenay Bluebird is a professional writer and photographer, and a sort-of artist. As she is currently writing about herself in the third person, she would like to tell you this is the first time she has shown her drawings to any sort of public.