Letter to our Subscribers

Thank you for all of the positive feedback on Facebook.

I wanted to send this note of appreciation and respond to all the gracious comments we have recently received on Facebook.  In these comments, a lot of readers have asked for a bit more background on Delanceyplace and our process for selecting items – so here goes:

Why did I start Delanceyplace? Certainly not for the money – Delanceyplace is strictly a not-for-profit. In fact, the money we do make when readers buy books through the site is earmarked for children’s literacy organizations. Instead, Delanceyplace is a genuine passion. I read a lot. Probably two or three books a week. Almost entirely non-fiction. And for as long as I have been reading, I have never failed to come across certain passages (we call them “excerpts”) that seemed to me so striking that I felt the  strong desire to share them with whatever poor soul happened to be close at hand. Few things compare to the rush I feel when I stumble across an excerpt that explains something I have been puzzling over, persuasively contradicts something I have previously believed, or reveals something I had never expected.  With the advent of the internet, it didn’t take much to begin sharing those passages electronically.

What qualifies me to do this? Well, I think it is because I have stumbled a lot and so now can better recognize and share those stories that illuminate the surprises, contradictions, limitations and nuances of life.  (Though I hope in some areas my successes have slightly outnumbered my mistakes.) When I was young and read history, it seemed unreachable – heroic – something to aspire to. And while the events of my life have never been ones that were worthy of a history book, when I read history now I can feel the emotions, I understand the foibles and deceits. It seems familiar – in part because I have been through similar things, albeit on a much more modest scale. I know risk. I have been in situations where I had a stomach tightening stake. I have tried to make change and been thwarted by the real arbiters of power. I have seen the creation of art. I know skyscrapers in Beijing and urchins in Marrakesh. From where I sit 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 have had my share of heartbreak  – and joy – as a father, husband, lover and son.

What kinds of excerpts do I favor? Well, I have a weakness for things contrarian. And I love excerpts that quantify things, because historians (and politicians) seem to have an almost pathological neglect of numbers. For example, I find it fascinating that Prohibition led to the opening of over a million new speakeasies, or that the Afghanistan War costs over $100 billion a year while the entire Afghanistan economy is only $15 billion a year.  I love language and words and the explanations that attach to them. I have a passion for the study of the mind, and often include passages from works on psychology – in large part because I view the study of history to ultimately be the study of behavior and therefore itself a study of the mind. All these views tend to spill across the pages of Delanceyplace.

History is “stranger than fiction.” Our minds tend to fit the things we see and learn into existing, comfortable storylines. We do this in part because it is comfortable, but also because it is easier. We simply don’t have the time to dig deeply and to gain a more complete understanding of most of the things we encounter. But the reality underneath the accepted storyline is often a vastly different story.  To me, re-examining history, ”warts and all,” better prepares us for dealing with things in our lives today – be they personal or societal.

For example, George Washington is one of my favorite characters in all of history. But it does me no good to read “hagiographies” of his life – books that treat him as a saint with no flaws. It is much more useful to me to know he was arrogant and insecure, that he was a clumsy military strategist who was almost fired from his position as general, and that he was a land speculator whose financial interests played a part in his decision to fight against the King. It is useful because what I really want to know is how he kept himself together and persevered in spite of those things, and how he balanced his personal financial interests against larger issues, and gained the support of his countrymen and the world. That’s the sort of thing I want to know.

I revel in the wonders and achievements of our country; nevertheless, it helps me to learn that the War of 1812 was fought in part because of American speculators’ desire for land in the west, or that the Spanish American War was fought in part because of certain politicians’ needs for a new cause to distract from recent domestic woes. Why does it help? Because there is similar complexity in decisions about wars today, and those complexities are hidden under the simplified narratives we read in the newspapers. It is instructive to learn how many myths the media created in the first 24 hours of the Columbine tragedy still persist today, though long since disproven. Most things written about the Scopes Monkey trial portray it as a the dawn of a new age of scientific education - but every action brings a sometimes unnoticed counter-reaction, and it may be more instructive to learn that the trial was perhaps the single most powerful impetus for launching the fervent Christian fundamentalist movement so broadly present 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, the war would have no doubt been another limited and obscure European war that would have likely been called the “Austro-Serbian War of 1914” and then immediately disappeared from the history books.

Don’t get me wrong, even though I tend to be a contrarian, I don’t often cast my lot with conspiracy theorists. I think conspiracy theorists almost always give far too much credit for competency to those they believe are conspiring. I just think many of our motives are base rather than noble – I know mine sometimes are – and the world often plays out accordingly.

History, closely examined, can teach us when to be wary. Much more, though, it can teach us what to notice, to cherish, and to embrace.

I am deeply grateful for the interest in Delanceyplace. Comments like the ones we have recently received make the endeavor all the more worthwhile.

Warmest regards and heartfelt thanks,

Richard


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All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


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