History is Art! Take That, Sculpting! Part III

Sometimes a Math? Bernard Bailyn is a man with an amazing career as a scholar, professor and author and, at 92 years old, is still active in these fields. I first encountered his work in a class on the American Revolution my senior year of college. He is the author of The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, a Pulitzer Prize winning work that I once wrote a mediocre paper about. My assignment was to compare it to David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing. I remember liking Fischer’s book better and even went as far as saying it was a more effective and stronger interpretation of the American Revolution.

Looking back, I feel Bailyn’s work was stronger. I think that I just found it dry and a little too challenging. It now sticks out in my memory as one of the first really challenging texts that really made me think critically about an important time in our nation’s history. But man was it dry.

Andy, we’ve had a long talk and decided your paper was pretty okay I guess.

Thankfully, Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History was very readable. May was a broad topic for my challenge, Nonfiction/History. There are a good deal of important Nonfiction books I could have read, but when I saw Bernard Bailyn had a new book, about History as an Art no less, my nostalgia for college kicked in and I had to pick it up.

Before we get into the ever-long debate of what makes art, art, and how History fits in to that subject, let me give a quick summary of each of the nine essays.


  1. Considering the Slave Trade: History and Memory: This essay was written about the Du Bois Trans-Atlantic Databse held in Williamsburg, VA in 1998.  Bailyn examines the impact that amassing such a large amount of information, statistics and numbers related to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade has in terms of a historical narrative. He concludes that new information can be gleaned from such a collection and that even though it may tear at our hearts, putting such a dark chapter of human history in perspective makes our understanding both stronger and more enlightened.
  2. Context in History: Bailyn’s second essay touches on a topic that my professors always touched on; that is, how to keep history in context. Meaning that we may think of parts of history or historical figures with all of our current knowledge, but men and women of the past did not have our wealth of historical context. This can manifest itself in various ways, such as concluding a general was stupid and a poor tactician for a tactical blunder. Keeping history in context means that we now know that his tactics did not work because, of course, the army suffered a defeat, but placing oneself in the context of the day, historians must ask: did the plan make sense then? Can we call the founding fathers racist for not abolishing slavery in the constitution, or did it make more sense for in the context of the day for a fledgling nation made up of states to not drive a rift between itself? Myabe the answer is yes, but without contextualizing, the historian loses a stronger conclusion. Bailyn notes of the difficulties of context on our conscience, “to try an explain [the reasons] seems to be an attempt to excuse them.” A wonderful essay on the difficulties of weighing the historian’s conscience with truly analyzing history, the book gets its name from Bailyn’s description of History as “never a science, sometimes an art, essentially a craft…”
  3. Three Trends in Modern History: Bailyn examines, as the title suggests, three trends in history that are shaping the direction the discipline is heading. They are Quantitative History, or how access to more data widens our perception of history, Spatial Relationships, or how modern historians can share data and ideas faster than ever, and a developing focus on the private lives of historical subjects, both large figures and the general populations of any period in history, and how the small things, attitudes, fears, expectations and the like, shaped their lives and, in turn, history.
  4. History in Creative Imagination: Bailyn breaks this down very simply in the second paragraph, “What is creativity in history?” The essay mainly focuses on creative ways in which historians are now researching and writing about history. Bailyn uses this to discuss a few historians in particular and the ways in which they have injected history with imagination, one way in particular being the treatment of History like writing a piece of fiction, which I found very interesting. But for all his insight, I feel that Bailyn’s examples really don’t highlight the ways in which history can be creative. He basically boils it down those who have the imagination to put History in context and those who just find the facts.
  5. The Losers: This is a well written, very interesting discussion of those who stayed loyal to the British Crown during and after the American Revolutionary War. Bailyn again attempts to contextualize these men and women. He notes that it is easy, looking back as do from the ‘winners’ perspective, to look down on the Loyalists as misguided and even stupid for supporting the British. In context, however, their reasons are not so black and white and must be examined as those who lived during the war would have done. One of the better essays in the collection, Bailyn is at his finest when writing on the subject of the American Revolutionary War.
  6. Thomas Hutchinson in Context: Much like the last essay, Bailyn examines one of the most notorious Loyalists of the American Revolution; Thomas Hutchinson. An interesting topic, but a slow moving piece that lacks resolution.
  7. Enlgand’s Cultural Provinces: A fascinating look at the parallels between Scotland and the United States as they grew under, and in the USA’s case, away from British rule. Bailyn mostly examines just how the colonists in the Americas came to revolution and how Scotland, so similar to the USA, did not.
  8. Peopling the Peripheries: This was a very engaging essay, but pretty straightforward. Bailyn, on the occasion of Australia’s Bicentennial, discusses the history and historiography by comparing and contrasting it with history and historiography in the Americas.
  9. The Search for Perfection: The last essay in the collection is not as interesting as the others, but still well done. A tribute and discussion surrounding the late Isaiah Berlin and his influence over his students at Harvard, how he looked at America’s early colonization and the impact it has had on the modern world, particularly in the Middle East.



There remain two big questions here: one, does Bailyn make a case for History as an Art. And two: was this book worth reading?

Before we can answer question number one, we must figure out, what is art? The simplest answer I can give is that Art imitates life. But then the voices of my friends who are prone to philosophical over-arguing pop into my head and start a debate that I really don’t want to have in real life, let alone in my head. The definition of art is not that simple, I know, and I often find myself watching or listening to something that makes me think, “my god this is terrible, this isn’t art.”

Well guess what? It usually is.

The problem is that a case can be made for pretty much anything being art.

“The Temptation of Saint Anthony”, my favorite piece of fiction debated art. By Rabo Karabekian, Kurt Vonnegut’s main character in his novel Bluebeard.

But Andy! I hear you scream, that’s not true. What about Math? Math isn’t an art!

What If I write 2 +4=6. Was that art? What if I write it in rainbow colors and frame it? What If I make it a speech bubble coming from George Bush’s mouth (either Bush, take your pick). Is it still just Math? Is it art at all?

My point here is that Art really is a debate. And, in my opinion, anything that becomes debated art becomes art.

Bernard Bailyn’s collection isn’t called Always an Art for a reason. He is smart enough to know that, as a discipline, History is not inherently an art. But sometimes, it can be. Not only does Bailyn’s second and fourth essays debate this well, but the book itself is an illustration of this. In well written, well collected prose, Bailyn demonstrates that this book itself is an art.

More than that, his two essays clearly demonstrate that sometimes, historians need a wide berth of imagination to truly understand the past. Contextualizing history is not far off from what I do as an actor, especially in a historical piece. As an actor examining a play, I examine the given circumstances of my character; that is their station, family status, likes, dislikes, all as written by the playwright. Historians must examine the given circumstances as dictated by the past. The Historian must put themselves in the past, in the shoes of the subject they are examining, stripping themselves of our current knowledge and luxuries to truly grasp what they are studying. Contextualizing history, giving it a narrative that flows and makes it interesting to read and learn is when History is an art.

If you’re looking for some interesting non-fiction and especially if you are interested in the American Revolution or Colonial History, you should read Sometimes an Art. It’s the kind of book that, if it sounds like something you’ll like, you’ll like it. Few historians are as good as Bernard Bailyn and I definitely recommend this book. It’s a quick read, broken up into nine parts and only 260 pages.

It’s always nice to know that I’m not the only person who felt that sometimes, late at night with a pile of books on my desk and my fifth cup of tea in me, scrambling to put the finishing touches on another paper, History was an art.


Official Whale and the Petunias mascot Noodle posing with Bailyn’s work.


Unrelated Book Thought: I am, unfortunately, missing Mumford and Sons again while they tour in the States, but I do know many people who are going to see them. I haven’t had a chance to listen to their new album, but, like all bands that put out new music that sounds different than their last, I cannot understand other people’s opinions of it. Old fans think it’s too different, while those who aren’t fans think that they’ve lost the sound that made them different. They claim the band sounds the same as every other popular band.

Have fun seeing them without me, EVERYONE ELSE IN THE WORLD.

This is a long and tiresome topic for me and so I’ll leave it at this: if you only like a band because of one thing (ie. The banjo/ folksy sound in Mumford and Sons’ case) then you don’t really like the band. A band is more than a style or one instrument. I like my favorite bands because of their style, sound, the song composition, lyrics, their energy, their passion and more. It is okay to be critical and to dislike an album that a band puts out- but giving up on a band just because they changed something is, in my opinion, a silly thing.

My rule with bands is this: If I don’t like an album, I still get the next one. If they put out two in a row I don’t like, then I usually don’t get the next album without listening to a few songs first.


Next Time, on The Whale and the Petunias: I force myself to think about a fictional character’s muscles much more than I’m comfortable with while reading the recent hit Divergent. Is the book deserving of the recent attention it’s getting, or is it some sort of weird fluke, like Twilight was? Seriously,  I’ve been forced to think about young, fictional, male muscles way too over the past month.

History is Art! Take that, Sculpting! Part II

I’ll Hold My Breath for you, Mr. Crichton: When I was younger, maybe 13 or 14, I read a book called Prey, by Michael Crichton. It was terrifying and wonderful, and my mind was blown when I learned that the author of the book was the man responsible for Jurassic Park. I quickly picked up Crichton’s Dinosaur epic and was enthralled. It still, to this day, sticks in my mind as a book that, while different from the movie that ultimately came from it, was a book that I liked just as much as the movie and vice versa. I can’t think of a movie I liked more than the book (at least a movie based on a novel, not something like a Star Wars book).

In retrospect, the second and third Jurassic Park are pretty good, but nowhere near the first movie. They are, however, still movies that feel like a Jurassic Park movie.

Oh, the majesty. They’re just so… so beautiful…

I have not yet seen Jurassic World, its release date being this past weekend, but from the trailers and hype surrounding it, the fourth movie does not feel like a Jurassic Park movie. Watch the trailer for Jurassic World and then watch a trailer for San Andreas. They feel like the same movie just packaged differently. Please, don’t let the nostalgia get to you; Jurassic World already feels like it’s going to be a disappointment. I’m sure the effects will be amazing, but it’s the story that seems off. Jurassic Park wasn’t just a survive-the-horrors/disaster-porn sort of movie; we came to love the dinosaurs that eventually attacked the human characters. They captured our imagination and the human characters had a real connection to them. In a movie like San Andreas or Twister, the disasters that fall are less enchanting and more terrible, horrifying things. We don’t need to love an earthquake, we need to fear it. But in something like Jurassic Park, the love that grows in the first part of the movie fosters the fear from the second part. In Jurassic World, it seems like they’ve turned the dinosaurs into killing machines. We need not love them or be amazed by them, just fear them.

Who knows, maybe they’ll build up the first part of the movie as the park being a wonderful, enchanting place, but it feels more like it will come off as poorly written foreshadowing; ‘Oh wow, look at all the Pterodactyl! I hope a large number of them doesn’t somehow escape and terrorize the populace of the park, strangely picking someone up for no reason and dropping them in water, leaving them to drown. Dying is scary! So are Dinosaurs!’

It’s a numbers game to me. The first one was so good because it was a small group of people trying to survive a situation that pit them against a few dangerous foes.  The second one had more people and more faceless foes and it wasn’t as good. The third returned to the formula, the problem was that it felt a little phoned in.  I always hated scenes in movies that were just needless destruction and killing. It’s the difference between twenty random people dying at the hands of something dangerous and then the movie forgetting about them and the same scene playing, only with our main characters to connect to that scene in some way. Think needless deaths in any sort of Day After Tomorrow movie versus the scenes in The Avengers where NYC is under attack. Every scene where people’s lives are threatened connect to our main characters.

Don’t get me wrong, I really do hope Jurassic World is good, I’m just expecting to be let down. But please, let me be wrong.


Books In the News: If you haven’t heard, E.L. James is writing a new 50 shades of Grey novel from the point of view of the male…um, protagonist? Sex guy? I don’t know what to call him.

This is a bad thing. But I’m conflicted because it’s a book that will sell well so it is something that will help keep my store in business.

So… thanks E.L. James?

Actually, I’d rather she just didn’t write the damn thing. Really, it’s not going to be good.

I’d rather wait with the Jurassic park raptors, thanks.

We receive books in advance of their release date all the time. We get the books in a box with the release date labeled and just keep them safely tucked away, putting them out on their release date. Publishers label the boxes and sometimes let us know on an invoice when the book is being released, asking us not to put it out ahead of time.

When it comes to books coming our way before their release, I have never before seen a contract sent to us regarding not putting the book out early. We received such a contract for Grey. It was intense. We had to sign this contract that said we would not put any copies out  for sale early, give any away early, and keep it in a locked, secure room before its release date. We don’t even have the damn book yet! There must be something going on with the rights to the book now being owned by a movie studio wanting to keep their property safe.

But damn.



Adventures in Retail: I very much dislike when people make a fuss about the price of an item and then tell me, “You know, [Other Store] has [item] for [very cheap].” This happens every now and then with the price of books and Amazon. I don’t have the patience to explain to people why Amazon sells books for so cheap, but that’s a different issue. When it really bothers me is for gift-like items, such as candles, scarves and cards.

We are a bookstore, but have a wide selection of gift items like the ones previously mentioned; selling these items helps keep us in business. A quick look around the store tells you that they fit a certain style and clientele. One would think a quick glance around the store would key anyone in to the fact that we are not a convenience store.

So please, don’t complain that we don’t sell 99¢ cards or, as one woman informed in a huff while buying a candle, “You know they sell candles at Michaels for $10.” That is very clearly not the type of store we are.

Here, buy this. That can’t cost more than $10 I swear.

You don’t have to buy the candle. Don’t act like you’re doing me a favor by buying a candle, as if you were forced to do it. If you’re buying it as a last minute gift, maybe you should have thought ahead and made some time to go to Michaels? I hate feeling like I need to apologize for selling someone something.

That’s like apologizing for speaking too loud on stage in the middle of a play because I interrupted an audience member’s nap.


Check in for Part III next!

History is Art! Take that, Sculpting! Part I.

In College, I double majored in Theatre and History. At a glance, these two disciplines feel very different; one very expressive, emotionally driven that makes use of the body as a tool, and another that aims to discover why the world is the way it is, why people were and are by studying facts and evidence. But college is, in my opinion, breaking down things you thought you understood about the disciplines you study and leaving them broken. This allows the student to piece together just why Theatre is Theatre or History is History without having to glue everything back together. There is not solid answer; as we learn, the definition changes. Theatre and History are not so different. Theatre is really a bit of everything in some way shape or form; as an actor I must know the history of not only the piece I’m performing but the period the piece is set in. I play therapist and analyze my character, and if my character is a scientist then I better damn well learn the field he is an expert in. The same would be expected if he was a mathematician or Alligator Farmer.

Alas, poor Yorick, the Battle of Yorktown was fought on October 19, 1781! Look alive man, this is important!


The biggest difference, I think, is that Theatre is, without question, a form of art. History differs in this respect as it is not usually considered art. But can it be? The image of a scholar pouring over letters and maps, piecing together events and opinions does not inspire artistically the same way an image of Picasso furiously sketching and painting his next work does. But can’t History be an art? My senior thesis class in college looked at historical films, everything from Saving Private Ryan to Enemy at the Gates, to see if they were viable forms of history. We looked at art as an effective way to teach history, what about history as an effective way to express art? And does that make it art?

Bernard Bailyn, in his new book Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays Concerning Hisotry aims to answer these questions. While all nine essays in the collection are not specifically about History as an art, they are all not only interesting but, in some way, contribute to the discussion. The question that then remains is: what is Bernard Bailyn’s verdict? Should we throw History in with Art, Music, Acting, Dancing, Juggling, Magic Tricks, Sketching naked dudes and ladies, and Writing novels?

Is History Art?

Bernard Bailyn Da Vinci Fosse Olivier.

Bernard Bailyn, 92 years old, Takes on 50 Shades Of Grey: We’ve now sold 238 copies of 50 Shades of Grey. In comparison, we’ve sold two copies of Sometimes an Art. I don’t think we’ve sold more copies of the first three books I’ve read for this challenge combined than we have 50 Shades of Grey.

The Vorrh vs 50 Shades of Grey, an update:

Well, the Vorrh has sold 3 copies since its release. While it has not overtaken 5o Shades, it is catching up! Slowly but surely….


Books in Social Media:

Someone posted this quiz on Facebook the other day. Go ahead and take the quiz, it will only take a moment.

Here are some thoughts I had while taking the quiz.

-Who’s going to pick ‘an office’ as a place to spend their summer?

-I love adjusting!

-What the hell is a barong?

-Deciding between shells help pick a book. Wonderful. I should use that more often when recommending books at the store.

-I can see it now. “I’m looking for something really great to read, what do you recommend?” “I have one question: Shells, or Starfish. Oh, Starfish? War and Peace.”

Oh, this starfish? Maybe you’d like a book with more pictures.

I’m unsure as to whether or not this quiz was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek or not, but either way, I’m calling it a failure. To be fair to buzzfeed, they did publish an article with some interesting and well-thought Summer road trip books.

I would only add my perennial summer favorite, Pete the Cat and His Friend The Lorax in Mexico: An Exegesis, but otherwise there are some interesting picks on the list.


Check in for Part II!