Bit Players of History

It’s sobering to realize that of all the billions of people who have lived and died since the beginning, we know about so few. I always feel enriched by books that enlarge the cast of characters. History itself seems to make more sense when it’s not just Napoleon or whoever acting in a vacuum. Forgotten Musicians, by Paul Nettle (1951), populates the lively world of classical music in the 1700s with people other than the ones we always hear about, and lets us glimpse their everyday lives. Medieval Popular Culture, by Aron Gurvich (1988) reconstructs the fascinating and sometimes startling thoughts of the “ordinary” Medieval working stiff. Most of us have heard of Madame Tussaud and her waxworks, but I never knew that she grew up in a household that strongly supported the French Revolution, and was right at the epicenter of its turbulent events. The French Revolution As Seen by Madame Tussaud, Witness Extraordinary, by Pauline Chapman (1989) turns its readers into eyewitnesses too. Time travel is said to be impossible, but books like these do much to take its place.

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