Getting to the Primary Sources

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Carroll & Graf

While I was in Alaska, I read Alfred Lansing's terrific Endurance, his history of Ernest Shackleton's polar expedition and escape, and right now, I'm reading (partly inspired by Ta-Nehisi) Battle Cry of Freedom. They're both fascinating experiments in use of primary sources. Lansing's book couldn't exist in the form it does without the diaries kept by crew members on Shackleton's expedition. And while Battle Cry of Freedom is primarily a survey history, it relies on a number of diaries and letters to pull us into the narrative on a gut level.


It's fascinating to me how we love primary sources in history for their ability to give us that personal perspective. We know they aren't comprehensive or objective, but we love them for that. We can't know what it was actually like to live as a slave, or to own them, to desperately try to stay fed and sane on locked-in polar ice for two years, or to decide to set out across the polar sea in what is essentially a rowboat. Primary sources can help us touch that perspective across the years, and we value the flaw in the crystal.

But in our own time, a great deal of America seems to view perspective and opinions as a kind of poison, particularly when it comes to journalists and politicians. It's not merely enough not to express opinions if you're a reporter: you're not supposed to have opinions at all. As a politician, if you're foolish enough to let the wrong opinion slip, to view the world through a lens pre-ground for you by a party platform committee, you're in trouble. Rather than appreciating the chance to switch in lenses and to see the world in different ways, there's an obsession with the idea that the truth of events can be discerned, without doubt or argument. It's not true in history, and it's not true in politics, or anything else. Being in the moment doesn't mean that we can define it absolutely. Our politics and our journalism might be healthier, and more honest, if we didn't try, and approached understanding the present like we approach the past.
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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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