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 make when readers buy books through the site is given to children's literacy organizations. Instead, Delanceyplace is a 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. I am thrilled when I stumble across a passage that explains something I have been puzzling over, or persuasively contradicts something I previously believed, or reveals something unexpected. On occasion, it might even be something where I disagree with some or all of it, but nevertheless deem it worth noting. With the advent of the internet, it didn't take much for me to want to share those passages "virtually."
What has qualified me to do this? Well, perhaps nothing. But if I am at all qualified, I think in part it is my deep involvement in a wide variety of areas that have given me a broad perspective on the surprises, contradictions, limitations and nuances of life. When I was young, the history I read seemed heroic and unattainable. But real history has scars and disillusionment alongside victory. And while the events of my life have never been ones 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 James Madison or T.S. Eliot, I learn more from their struggles than from their triumphs — because I have struggled too. I know success and failure and 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 am also drawn to certain values, and our selections reflect those values. Those values certainly include compassion and helping others, but the one that tends to appear more than any other is resiliency – the ability to recover after defeat or catastrophe. My favorite quote on this comes from Mary Pickford, who became fabulously famous and wealthy in the earliest days of Hollywood, and who said "You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing that we call 'failure' is not the falling down, but the staying down."
I also love language and words and their histories. I want to understand 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.
Most of the time, we simply don't have time to gain a more complete understanding of things we encounter and so we try to fit things into patterns we find familiar. But history is more unpredictable than fiction and when told well, we can learn how it breaks from these familiar patterns. The best authors show us a reality underneath the accepted storyline that is often unexpected — and instructive.
To me, examining history, 'warts and all,' better prepares us for dealing with issues we face today – be they personal or societal. George Washington deserves his towering reputation, but it does me little good to read books that treat him solely as an icon. 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 King George. 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 that are hidden under the simplified narratives put forward by politicians and 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 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. The scarcity of gunpowder constrained the size of wars prior to 1909, so absent that discovery, it would have likely been simply another in a long string of confusing European wars in which far fewer people died.
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, Richard
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