The Writer as Historian

As a college student interested in science, I was drawn to the pursuit of new discoveries, the promises of technological progress, and a fascination with the possibilities of the future. History interested me, but I did not fully recognize the value of this academic field until I acquired two more decades of life experience.

When I started writing my book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, in order to include accurate stories from seasons in my life alongside explanations of concepts and advice, I briefly stepped into the role of writer as historian.

Now, a year after the release of the book, I treasure this role as one of the special privileges of being an author. Here are a few ways in which authors can fulfill this role:

Preserve Places – Change is one reliable constant in life. Buildings undergo renovation, new businesses open up and others close on familiar hometown streets, and development transforms the landscape. Such changes usually fuel progress and keep institutions relevant for new generations. However, no matter how positive the changes may be, change brings loss, too.

When an author describes a place within the pages of a book, he or she takes a snapshot of a place to preserve for the future. Within the pages of a book, time travel is possible, as a reader opens a door into a building now demolished, treads on carpet from a different era, and takes in the chandeliers, paintings, and furniture in a scene that no longer exists.

Such passages do more than stir nostalgia – they help a reader gain insight into a past way of life.

Uphold Values – Somewhere in the rooms of the past described in scenes of a book, a reader can rediscover traditions worth repeating and values worth teaching to new students. Gracious hospitality comes alive in descriptions of exquisite pastries on silver trays shared along with polite conversation.

A reader who dines along with characters in the book may not be physically nourished, but may find encouragement to engage in pleasant conversation and linger longer at the family dinner table.

Record Lessons – Not everything about a previous era is rosy. A writer that captures the truth of a moment in time in a passage records lessons that can inspire change for the future.

Dialogue that exposes attitudes and prejudices that are honest representations of a time and place help readers discern the need for present day improvements. In preserving history, authors encourage progress.

All authors serve as historians at some point in their books, no matter what section of the bookstore will display their works. You can find history in a physics book as surely as you can in a book on architecture.

In what ways have you captured history in your writing?

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2 thoughts on “The Writer as Historian

  1. This is so true. I am fascinated with how nations (any/all) at times never seem to learn from their past mistakes. On the other hand, I’m equally fascinated to see how much we have overcome by examining history. It’s very important to shed light on those things through our writing. You never know how the right book at the right time might be just the impetus someone needs for a change for the better.

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