It was heartening to see that the venerable organization National Geographic has released the first issue of a new magazine devoted to history, Exploring History. Even organizations that have “history” in their title or mouth lofty mottos about its importance seem to have little love or commitment to actual history. A glance for example at the Sunday night lineup for our “History Channel,” on whose board I served for a while—in fact I was one of its advocates to the CRTC—lists “Pawn Stars,” “Ice Road Truckers,” and the movie “Body of Lies.” (No better for the Arts the same night on A&E, which lists six straight episodes of the American series “Criminal Minds.”)
NGS’s “Exploring History” begins by quoting the great Roman orator Cicero: “History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life, and brings in tidings of antiquity.” The magazine is an excellent blend of short pieces, all beautifully illustrated of course, beginning with several “on this day” items: the birth of Queen Elizabeth I and Columbus’ first step ashore. There are short “did you know” articles on the domestication of the horse and on the true length of the great Wall (8800 kilometres!—the distance from New York to Cairo). I know that it is beyond the scope, and that my own curiosity tends more to the speculation on significance, but I did wish that some of these pieces gave us more depth. For example, what was the role of the horse in shaping human history? Perhaps even on humanity itself?
But there are longer pieces as well. The main feature is on Abraham Lincoln, “Born Radical,” dealing with the mysterious origins of his astonishing character and abilities. The description of “Rome’s War Machine” should satisfy anyone interested (as many are) in military history. It is wonderfully illustrated with drawings of weapons, maps of movements, explanation of the composition of a legion, etc. Other longer pieces deal with the glorious life and ignominious death of Aztec emperor Moctezuma and with one of the most astonishing stories of our history, the life of Joan of Arc. These are clearly written, with chronologies, but once again little interpretation.
One of the best pieces, I thought, was in the feature “Little Known,” an article of how two medical heroes saved San Francisco from a devastating plague after the 1906 earthquake. The issue ends with some very brief book reviews (one of which I reviewed myself here on this blog) and yes, recommendations for web sites and apps. It may be unfair of me to end by wishing that this publication were available for the iPad. Not only would it look spectacular but also it would also offer more opportunities for expansion, interpretation and perhaps even for interaction.
For more information visit the National Geographic.