James Michener’s The Source tells the story, in typical Michener fashion, of a geographic location and the humans living in that area for generations. And it changed the way I see history.
Michener writes about a specific community, maybe a couple generations, and then moves on a couple hundred years. But each community is relationally and geographically tied to the past. The buildings remnants remain, the social structures are built on the foundation of the ancestors, and the people progress, yet still repeating the same conflicts.
Before reading the book, I didn’t really think about people 1000 years ago being hungry. Or being shy around people they’re attracted to. Or having arguments with their parents. Or, really, just living. I imagined them as objects existing in the past, somehow contributing to us now, but not in any agentitive way. Sure, I knew their choices mattered to them back then and us now, but I never thought about them making those choices. They were just characters in a book that has one ending.
Today, I was reminded of how much my view of history was changed when I read an article on Medium, “Close at Hand”. Writer Diana Kimball discusses the history of what we have put in our pockets, specifically the technology we have placed there. It was fascinating how much we can tell about people based on what we place and keep in our pockets. Knowing what people in history had in their pockets made them real.
Far more so, though, was the article’s last line: “We want to start fires and listen to a thousand songs.” From flint and steel to iPods, our desires are still the same. We are the same people as our ancestors, just generations apart.