Letter to our Subscribers
Thank you for all of the gracious feedback we continue to receive.
I wanted to say thank you and to respond to the questions and comments we regularly get. In these, readers sometimes ask for more background on Delanceyplace and insight into how we select our content – so here goes:
Why did I start Delanceyplace? Certainly not for the money – Delanceyplace is strictly not-for-profit. In fact, the money we do make when readers buy books through the site is given to children's literacy organizations. Instead, Delanceyplace is a genuine passion. I read a lot. Probably two or three non-fiction books a week. And for as long as I have been reading, I have never failed to come across certain passages (we call them "selections") that were so striking that I wanted to share them with whatever unsuspecting person happened to be close at hand. I am elated when I stumble across a passage that explains something I have been puzzling over, persuasively contradicts something I previously believed, or reveals something unexpected. With the advent of the internet, it didn't take much for me to want to share those passages virtually.
What has prepared me to do this? Well, I think in part it is my deep involvement in a wide variety of areas — business, art, charity, politics, travel, education, medicine, technology, sports, psychology and more. As part of that, I have gained a lot of experience — but made a lot of mistakes (though I hope in some areas my successes have outnumbered those mistakes) that give me a different perspective and new insight into the things that help illuminate the surprises, contradictions, limitations and nuances of life. When I was young and read history, it seemed heroic and unattainable. And while the events of my life have never been ones that were close to being worthy of a history book, I have done enough that now when I read history I can feel the emotions and understand the frailties and deceits. Now, when I read about Babe Didrikson Zaharias or T.S. Eliot, I learn less from their triumphs than from their personal struggles — because I have struggled too. I know risk. I have tried and failed. I have been in ventures where I had a stomach-tightening stake. I have seen the arduous path to the creation of art. I know joy and heartbreak.
For our selections — in addition to the types of things just mentioned, I look for the unexpected and contrarian. And I love passages that quantify things — and marvel that most historians (and politicians) so often neglect numbers. It is fascinating that Prohibition led to the opening of thousands upon thousands of new speakeasies, that the Afghanistan War cost over $100 billion a year while the entire Afghanistan economy itself was only $15 billion, and that American states defaulted on their debt en masse in the mid-1800s.
I also love language and words and the explanations that attach to them. I have a passion for understanding the mind, so I often include passages from works on psychology — and view the study of history ultimately to be the study of behavior and therefore itself a study of the mind. These preferences fill Delanceyplace.
History is more unpredictable and interesting than fiction. When well told, it breaks out from the familiar storylines in which we tend to fit things. Most of the time, we simply don't have time to gain a more complete understanding of things we encounter. But the reality underneath the accepted storyline is often unexpected — and instructive — and a well-written non-fiction work is one that takes us there.
To me, examining history, ‘warts and all,’ better prepares us for dealing with issues in our lives today – be they personal or societal. George Washington is one of my favorite characters in all of history, but it does me little good to read books that treat him as a saint. It is much more useful to know he was arrogant and insecure, that he was a clumsy military strategist who was almost replaced, and that he was a land speculator whose financial interests played a part in his decision to fight against the King. What I really want to know — what I genuinely learn from — is how he kept himself together and persevered in spite of those things, how he balanced his personal interests against larger issues, and gained the support of his countrymen and the world.
I rejoice in America; nevertheless, it helps me when I learn that the War of 1812 was fought in part because of American speculators' desire for land, or that the Spanish American War was fought in part because of certain politicians' needs for a new cause to distract the electorate from recent domestic woes. It helps because there is similar complexity in decisions about wars today hidden under the simplified narratives in the media. It is instructive to learn that many myths the media created in the first 24 hours after the Columbine tragedy still persist today, though long since disproven. Most things written about the Scopes Monkey trial portray it as the dawn of a new age of scientific education, but every action brings a sometimes unnoticed counter-reaction, so it may be more instructive to learn that the trial was a powerful impetus for launching the Christian fundamentalist movement we know today. And World War I – itself the cause of World War II – makes much more sense when we read that a method for synthetically manufacturing gunpowder was discovered in 1909. Previously, the lack of plentiful gunpowder constrained the size of wars. Absent that discovery, that war would have likely been another limited and obscure European war in which a much smaller number of people died and which quickly receded from history.
Even though I tend to be a contrarian, I don't often cast my lot with conspiracy theorists, who almost always give too much credit for competency to those they believe are conspiring. I simply think many of our motives are base rather than noble – I know mine sometimes are – and the world plays out accordingly.
History, closely examined, can teach us when to be wary —and more importantly what to notice, cherish, and embrace.
I am deeply grateful for the interest in Delanceyplace. The encouraging comments we so often receive make the endeavor all the more worthwhile.
Warmest regards and heartfelt thanks,