Malcolm Gladwell has a memorable voice. He speaks in silky, lilting syllables tinged with just a touch of graininess. He times his pauses. He talks with verve. Once in a while, one of his mesmerizing, Hemingway-like bursts of sentences will suddenly take your hand and lead you plummeting down Wikipedia rabbit holes.
“Revisionist History,” he calls it — a fitting name for a podcast series that unearths strange oddities and purifies them to create breathtaking nuggets of insight.
I like his podcast, a companion that’s started spending the late hours of the night and the weariness of long afternoons with me. I like the way he reapproaches history, and — as the title suggests — tweaks it ever so slightly. Gladwell digs into the stories of Bowdoin College’s culinary prowess, explores the hoarding mentality of museums, teases out the perplexingly conflicting accounts of a 1946 gun battle in war-torn Germany. He shines light onto the complex contours of human psychology and our institutions in dynamic, breathtaking fashion.
More importantly, his podcast reminds me of how passively we often choose to accept our past. Like most Americans, I was steeped in the quintessential curriculum of Honest Abes and cherry trees. George Washington, hatchet in hand; Abraham Lincoln walking five miles to return extra change. A tidy succession of wars, protests and progress cordoned off from the reach of our present day. I was brought up to learn that what’s done can’t be undone — the past is unchangeable, and we are merely its audience members.
Part of this desire for simplification is understandable. Making sense of our messy humanity — fitting events into a narrative of cause and effect — requires a reduction of some sort. For practical purposes, a single story will have to do. But this brand of history also plays into our impulse to fit ourselves into neat, ideological boxes. We all too quickly carve out tales to serve the larger-than-life characters we’ve created. Convenience blurs truth until we reach a point at which Gladwell mentions in one episode, “what actually happens slips away.”
In a college whose legacy so often chafes at new understandings of progress, we live out this battle between establishment ideas and our own wildly revisionist narratives each day. As a Directed Studies student, and as a reader of a distinctly Eurocentric collection of works, the conflict feels more acute than ever. I’ve read about democracy, tragic flaws and mind-spinning metaphysical debates. I’ve seen themes that transcend time and space. But the existence of a canon — preserving a set of works when it sometimes entails the exclusion of others — is troubling. In canonizing certain authors, we might simply perpetuate the stories of a select few who have benefitted from circumstance.
I often can’t help but imagine all the other voices we may have glossed over. In a world with undemocratic expression, those with access to the means of publishing centuries ago did so partly because of privilege. Perhaps, in 17th-century England, one of Locke’s lesser-known contemporaries lost his patronage and never released his work. Maybe an amateur philosopher with enough papers to rival those of Descartes passed all his life undiscovered. I think of all the Aristotles and Miltons, but I wonder just as much about the hundreds of others, nameless, who simply slipped through the cracks of luck, identity and time. How, then, do we choose to tell our stories? Which ones should we share, and at the expense of which others?
To borrow the words of my first-semester history professor, “A historian is just like a comedian.” Only the good accounts and witty punchlines survive the test of time. The success of a story rests ultimately on the shoulders of the reader. And in that sense, we write our own stories by choosing what we read. We decide what and how we will remember ourselves and our time. We may be powerless to retrieve all that has been lost — uncovering the forgotten skeletons of stories deep in the archives is always easier said than done — but the very least we can do is to expand the scope of our canons by giving every surviving work the attention it deserves. In a world of braindead megaphones, we can welcome the voices of the undersung.
As we make history and reflect on it, we continue to walk the fine line between tradition and progress. We’re preserving an identity — but doing so also requires us to remember that history is a series of endless amendments; it is a conscious decision to rethink, reassess and preserve. The bookshelves of our past are only as large as we choose to make them, and the greatest of changes might just happen — as Gladwell might say — through the incremental tunings of our hearts and minds.
HANWEN ZHANG is a first year in Benjamin Franklin College. His column, titled ‘Thoughtful spot,’ runs every other Thursday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.