Over the summer, I had the opportunity to visit some of the most unique cities America has to offer. From New York to San Francisco, Savannah to Berkeley, the more culturally rich and fascinating cities of the country tend to also be home to some of the best bookstores on Earth. Comfortably nestled somewhere in the beating heart of a city, often miles away from the nearest Barnes & Noble or Target, the independent bookstore thrives.
Each bookstore embodied certain characteristics present in the cities that engulfed them. Strand Bookstore in New York, with 18 miles of books lining its shelves, is as massive, industrial, deafening and crowded as the avenue it rests on. The incessant creaking of wood planks as you cross The Book Lady Bookstore in Savannah is as aesthetically southern (and spooky) as the colonial town it sits in. City Lights Bookstore, in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, home to narrow corridors once roamed by Jim Morrison and Jack Kerouac, has just the amount of shelves labeled “Anarchy” that you would expect to find in the Bay Area. A bookstore’s aesthetic and accompanying book collections can be powerful representations of the city that it inhabits.
No matter the bookstore I meandered my way through, I was always taken aback by the sheer abundance of shelves classified under “History.” Now, I am sure there is more history to write books about than there is time to write it, but the fact that this market segment appears to be exponentially growing is a fascinating idea to me. The history section at Barnes & Noble isn’t that expansive for nothing; there is a very real fascination with the past that many people have with the subject.
Referring to history as if it is simply one subject is an almost criminal generalization. The subsections of history to get lost in are endless. Studying all of history is impossible. You don’t have the time, interest or stamina to take on such an endeavor. But this is by no means a discouraging fact. It does not take long before a subject from within human history lures you in, be it a time period, conflict, country or individual. Every other discipline or subject imaginable, from astrophysics to classical music, has its own unique history waiting to be delved into.
Carl Sagan said “you have to know the past to understand the present.” The benefits of a thorough study of history cannot be understated, and seeing that history does, in fact, repeat itself before our very eyes, I believe that you cannot study the past without taking whatever you learn with you.
Sure, you will be able to get a few more questions right on “Jeopardy!,” but some of the most powerful insights from history appear on the micro level. A study of history is really just a study of man. Entire nations have behaved and embodied the same traits found on the level of the individual. The same faults that struck down and ultimately led to the demise of some of history’s most powerful countries and leaders are the same faults we can find in ourselves.
For example, empires have risen and fallen due to man’s tendency to become prideful and become blinded by his own hubris; indecision can often prove just as, if not more, costly than making a “wrong” decision; and farsightedness is undefeated against shortsightedness.
In the stories of the past, we can find parallels with our own lives. At the core of every critical moment in history are individual humans like you and me, trying their hardest to make the best decision they can given their circumstances and the information at hand. Technology and landscapes change, but the same basic traits of humanity persist through time. It is this universal and deeply personal applicability of history that I believe people will continue to have an innate fascination with stories of the past.
Andrew Hall is a UF management senior. His column appears on Fridays.