Yuval Harari: A commentary on the world’s bestselling historian

Alvin Finkel

Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind is a publishing miracle. Published initially in Hebrew in 2011, it was translated into English in 2014 and has since been translated into about 50 other languages. By the end of 2018, it reportedly had sold over 11.5 million copies and today in Amazon Canada’s listing for all books, its paperback edition remains the country’s third best-selling book. That is amazing for a serious work of history, a discipline that rarely provides works that sell in large numbers and virtually never offers tomes that reach the sales numbers of books by or about celebrities, books of easily digested pop philosophy, or the top fiction books.

Harari is an Israeli academic historian whose work before Sapiens was largely restricted to medieval military history. He was unknown even to historians outside his field. But the appeal of his work on global history turned Harari away from his narrow earlier research to the writing of broad, philosophical works that make use of his historical knowledge but increasingly are more focused on the present and future than on history per se. The two books that he has published since Sapiens, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century distinguish Harari as one of the primary public intellectuals of our time. Their combined sales of 7.5 million by the end of 2018 emphasize that Harari is neither a one-hit wonder nor simply a popular writer of historical works. But both books have at their roots his understanding of the evolution of our species that forms the basis for Sapiens.

Sapiens is an intelligent, condensed history of humans. It provides well-grounded observations of the origins of religions, warfare, empires, science, capitalism, and much else. Although Harari’s influences are broad and he is no ideologue, he can be broadly categorized as an historian who judges past events and developments from within a progressive framework that is evidenced in his own life. He is a vegan, a spiritual man who is serious about meditative practices, a secular Israeli, and a gay man who married his husband in Toronto in a civil ceremony. Sapiens was endorsed as a must-read book by Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates. But he almost certainly has qualms about the achievements of all three men, since, while he is fascinated by the impact of technology and economic growth on humans, he is mostly skeptical about how positive a role it has played in our evolution.

Indeed Harari is clear in his view that our best days as a species are behind us even though he hopes that we can regain something of what once made us admirable. He makes a strong case that human societies of the pre-agricultural period were largely marked by reciprocity, compassion, community, and a careful  balance of work and play. Harari regards the transition to agriculture as the worst mistake that humans ever made and the transition to industry as the second worst mistake. In these transitions he finds the creation of warlike nations and individuals, oppressive hierarchies, and a decisive move from communities where the collective good was the chief value to communities governed by greed, alienation of the led from leaders, and significant manipulation of the masses by elites. Of course, it is not hard for him to find plentiful examples to support his thesis.

But I think that his pessimistic conclusions, despite that evidence, are overstated and can cause people to feel wrongly that efforts to fight for social justice and climate justice today are a waste of time. Continue reading

Decline of the American Empire

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The Decline of the American Empire (1986), or how historians are depressed, hedonistic and abusive scholars who lead meaningless lives and don’t write any history. 

Serge Miville

There are three important things in history: First, the numbers, second, the numbers and third, the numbers. That’s why South African blacks will eventually win, and North American blacks are likely to never pull through.” – “Rémy,” opening lines of Le déclin de l’Empire américain (author’s translation)

Rémy in the classroom

Rémy dropping “historical” truth bombs in the opening scene – South Africans blacks will eventually vanquish apartheid while African-Americans may never “pull through”. Might consider a career in futurology.

Popular Québec cinema has a talent for posing highly reflective and existential questions about its own society. Denys Arcand, a graduate in History from the Université de Montréal, as well as Québec’s (and arguably Canada’s) most successful and celebrated filmmaker, was propelled into international stardom with his post-referendum, Reagan-era Le Déclin de l’Empire Américain / The Decline of the American Empire (1986), a film that epitomizes this tendency.

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Ten Keyboard Shortcuts Every Historian Should Know

Image by GuHyeok Jeong from Pixabay

By Sean Kheraj

You’re sitting uncomfortably in the audience at a conference waiting for the presenter to begin. They’ve finally loaded up their PowerPoint file from an old USB flash drive and all that’s left is to set it into presentation mode. They click around aimlessly on the screen trying button after button to no avail. Inside your head you’re shouting, “F5! F5! For the love of god, F5!”

This blog post is for you.*

10. CTRL+shift+e: Toggle Track Changes in Microsoft Word

Whether you’re editing the work of students, colleagues, or your own writing, Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature is a long-time function used by many historians. Did you know you can easily turn it on and off with this simple keyboard shortcut?

9. CTRL+f: Find on page

Handy for nearly any application with text, this keyboard shortcut can help you find that passage you were looking for and even assist in catching plagiarism! Continue reading

Who’s Afraid of Being an Historian?

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Colin M. Coates

In the 1966 Hollywood film, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, Richard Burton plays a cantankerous, disappointed, middle-aged History professor at a small liberal arts college in New England.  “George” (Burton) has reason to be grumpy.  He feels thwarted in his career and his relationship.  He is married to “Martha” (Elizabeth Taylor), a foul-mouthed “femme fatale” who constantly argues with him and embarrasses him in public.  He does the same to her, using similar language.  While the profanities pale in comparison to dialogue on television and in film today, they were shocking in 1966.  The synopsis of the film by “Criterion on demand” is one-sentence long: “Strong language comes out of the mouth of bitter married couples.”

George is a white middle-class historian of the 1960s era.  We can tell that by his glasses, his cardigan, his groaning bookshelf, and the station wagon that he and Martha drive.  We don’t have any idea of his area of geographical or chronological specialty, but he does have an imperial sweep of historical analysis.  By that, I mean that he pronounces imperiously on the meaning of history.  He does try to write books, though strangely enough his first unpublished manuscript is a novel. Possibly it is really a thinly disguised memoir.  He writes “papers” as well.  Martha comments on this: “You’re so convoluted…  You talk like you’re writing one of your stupid papers.”  George teaches students, but since this play takes place on a weekend, they are not at issue.

Depicting an historian on screen: cardigan and lots of books

How can we tell George is an historian? Look at the cardigan and the groaning bookshelves.

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Archivists In The Movies – Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones

Krista McCracken

Anyone else remember The Librarians TV series? I’ll openly admit that I started watching it because the show was focused on library professionals, albeit librarians of a magical library. If there was a show called The Archivists, I would be championing it before it even aired. A lot of people have no idea what an archivist does, and I long for a cultural touchstone to point folks to when they want to know more about my profession. 

Star Wars archivist

Jocasta Nu, the most famous movie archivist of all time?

It is common for movies to show librarians doing the work of archivists or situations that bypass archival labour and leap to a protagonist rifling through stacks of old documents. This archival exploration might even happen while smoking a pipe and drinking tea, like when Gandalf visits the archives of Gondor and is led down a staircase where he is left to explore piles of records.

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Eating History: English Canada and the Yorkshire Pudding

Sophie Hicks

This is the third post in a summer series exploring societal, community, and familial connections to food and food history. See the series introduction post here. An earlier version of this post appeared on The Canadian Cooking Chronicles, as part of a final project for an Archives Practicum class.

Whenever I look through a cookbook, I find myself examining the composition of the book as a whole. Whether cultural, regional, familial, or a mixture of these, each recipe within a cookbook plays a unique role in revealing a theme. The diversity between cookbooks mirrors the diversity and multiculturalism within the country. Pre-contact, there were a multitude of language and cultural variations between Indigenous nations, and today, there continues to be a growing diversity that adds to Canada’s narrative. Each community carries their own distinct cultural differences that extended to almost every aspect of daily life, including eating habits. As mentioned in my previous post on Pemmican, cultural distinctions that were once clearly recognizable can show signs of blurred lines when cohabitation or cultural domination takes effect.

In current day Canada,there is ample evidence for the wide range of cultures and backgrounds that compose the country’s population. Although this is not to say that the country has allowed for an overt display of these cultures or that Canada has embraced these differences, but that is a discussion for another time.

In pre-confederation Canada, the British and French were the dominant forces; even today, many parts of the country continue to be heavily influenced by these historical powerhouses. The dominance of these two groups in Canada result in many early cookbooks being categorized by culture, including the one looked at in this post: The New Galt Cook Book.

Cookbook cover

The New Galt Cook Book, 1898.

The following recipe is from The New Galt Cook Book, a recipe book published in 1898 and popular in English Canada, particularly the titular Galt in Cambridge, Ontario. When examining the cookbook, it’s clear that the women who compiled the recipes, Margaret Taylor and Frances McNaught, were heavily influenced by their British heritage. A majority of the recipes in this book are very traditional British favourites, including “shepherd’s pie”, “toad in the hole”, and, the recipe I chose to attempt, “Yorkshire Pudding”. Continue reading

Film Friday: Reconnecting Métis Webs of Wahkootowin

By the Graphic History Collective and Jesse Thistle

In July 2017, at the height of Canada 150, Métis brothers Jesse and Jerry Thistle released a poster as part of the Graphic History Collective’s Remember/Resist/Redraw series about their great grandmother Marianne Morrissette, née Ledoux. Marianne was a 16-year-old cook for Louis Riel during the Battle of Batoche in 1885. The poster, illustrated by Jerry and accompanied with an essay by Jesse was entitled “When Canada Opened Fire on My Kokum Marianne with a Gatling Gun.” The poster was positively received and continues to be downloaded and shared widely.

In 2018, Jesse made a short film for a GHC presentation at the CHA meeting in Regina explaining the history of his great grandmother and describing why the process of making the poster about her with his brother was so important. In short, the Canadian government’s violent attempts to break the Métis Nation and scatter communities across what is today known as Western Canada in the nineteenth century were attempts to disconnect wahkootowin, a Cree/Michif word that denotes kinship and values connection and relatedness. Recovering and “remembering” Marianne’s story through art, for Jesse and Jerry, was an attempt to heal their own trauma and reconnect their Métis web of wahkootowin, bringing them together and closer to the memory of their ancestor.

Today we are re-sharing Jerry and Jesse’s poster and posting the film he made about the process. We are also including an interview with Jesse about the project conducted by GHC member Sean Carleton.

“When Canada Opened Fire on My Kokum Marianne With a Gatling Gun,” by Jerry and Jesse Thistle. You can read Jesse’s essay here: http://graphichistorycollective.com/project/poster-8-batoche-1885-canada-opened-fire-kokum-marianne-gatling-gun

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A selection of records about D-Day and the Normandy Campaign, June 6 to August 30, 1944

This is the eighth of several posts marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the end of the Second World War as part of a partnership between Active History and the Juno Beach Centre. If you would like to contribute, contact series coordinator Alex Fitzgerald-Black at alex@junobeach.org.

Today’s post is the second part of a series published on the Library and Archives Canada Blog. We are grateful to Alex Comber and the LAC for making this post available through the ActiveHistory.ca portal. Please go to thediscoverblog.com for part 1, published June 6, 2019.

By Alex Comber

With part 1 of this post, we marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day and commemorated Canada’s participation in the June 6, 1944, invasion of northwestern Europe, and the Normandy Campaign, which ended on August 30, 1944. In part 2, we explore some of the unique collections that Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds about these events, and highlight some records that are the most accessible to our clients online. Through outreach activities, targeted and large-scale digitization, and our new DigiLab and Co-Lab initiatives, LAC is striving to make records more easily available.

LAC staff receive many reference requests about our collections of photos. Canadian Film and Photo Unit (CFPU) personnel went ashore 75 years ago, on D-Day, filming and photographing as they landed. During the Normandy Campaign, they continued to produce a visual record that showed more front-line operations than official photographers had been able to capture in previous conflicts. Film clips were incorporated into “Canadian Army Newsreels” for the audiences back home, with some clips, such as the D-Day sequence above, being used internationally.

Photographers attached to the army and navy used both black-and-white and colour cameras, and the ZK Army and CT Navy series group the magnificent colour images together.

A British Centaur close-support howitzer tank assisting Canadians during the Normandy Campaign (e010750628)

Some of the most iconic imagery of the Canadian military effort in Normandy was incorporated into the Army Numerical series; by the end of hostilities, this had grown to include more than 60,000 photographs. The print albums that were originally produced during the Second World War to handle reproduction requests can help in navigating this overwhelming amount of material. Researchers at our Ottawa location refer to these volumes as the “Red Albums,” because of their red covers. These albums allow visitors to flip through a day-by-day visual record of Canadian army activities from the Second World War. LAC has recently digitized print albums 74, 75, 76 and 77, which show events in France from June 6 until mid-August 1944. 

A page from Army Numerical print album Volume 74 of 110, showing the immediate aftermath of the landings (e011217614)

LAC also holds an extensive collection of textual records related to the events of June–August 1944. One of the most important collections is the War Diaries of Canadian army units that participated in the campaign. Units overseas were required to keep a daily record, or “War Diary,” of their activities, for historical purposes. These usually summarized important events, training, preparations and operations. In the Second World War, unit war diaries also often included the names of soldiers who were killed or seriously injured. Officers added additional information, reports, campaign maps, unit newsletters and other important sources in appendices. Selected diaries are being digitized and made accessible through our online catalogue. One remarkable diary, loaded in two separate PDF scans under MIKAN 928089, is for the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, the first Canadian soldiers in action on D-Day, as part of “Operation Tonga,” the British 6th Airborne Division landings.

Daily entry for June 6, 1944, from the War Diary of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, detailing unit objectives for Operation Overlord (D-Day) (e011268051)

War diaries of command and headquarters units are also important sources because they provide a wider perspective on the successes or failures of military operations. These war diaries included documents sourced from the units under their command. Examples that are currently digitized include the Headquarters of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, from June and July 1944.

War Diary daily entries for early June 1944, including the first section of a lengthy passage about operations on June 6, 1944 (e999919600)

LAC is also the repository for all Second World War personnel files of the Canadian Active Service Force (Overseas Canadian Army), Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force. The service files of approximately 44,000 men and women who died while serving in these forces from 1939 to 1947 are open to the public. These records include the more than 5,000 files of those who died in operations during the Normandy Campaign. As the result of a partnership with Ancestry.ca, a portion of every open service file was digitized. This selection of documents was then loaded on Ancestry.ca, fully accessible to Canadians who register for a free account. To set up a free account and access these files on Ancestry.ca, see this information and instruction page on our website.

These records have great genealogical and historical value. As the following documents show, they continue to be relevant, and they can powerfully connect us to the men and women who served in the Second World War, and their families.

Private Ralph T. Ferns of Toronto went missing on August 14, 1944, during a friendly-fire incident. His unit, the Royal Regiment of Canada, was bombed by Allied aircraft as soldiers were moving up to take part in Operation Tractable, south of Caen. Sixty years later, near Haut Mesnil, France, skeletal remains were discovered. The Department of National Defence’s Casualty Identification Program staff were able to positively identify Private Ferns. The medical documents in his service file, including this dental history sheet, were important sources of information. Ferns was buried with full military honours at Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery in 2008, with his family in attendance.

Private Alexis Albert, serving with the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment, was killed in action in France on June 11, 1944. Four years later, his father, Bruno Albert, living in Caraquet, New Brunswick, requested the address of the family that was tending his son’s grave at Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery in France, to thank them. The Director of War Service Records, Department of Veterans Affairs, provided this response, which helped to connect the grieving family in Canada with French citizens carefully maintaining the burial plot in Normandy.

These are only a few examples of LAC records related to the Canadian military effort in France from June 6 until the end of August 1944. Our Collection Search tool can locate many other invaluable sources to help our clients explore the planning and logistical efforts to sustain Canadian military operations in France, delve deeper into the events themselves, and discover personal stories of hardships, accomplishments, suffering and loss.

Alex Comber is a Military Archivist in the Government Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Lucky Jim

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‘Lucky Jim’
Stephen Brooke

There were three foundational texts in my early development as a historian. I would love to say one of them was E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. But it wasn’t. Rather, the first was Hamlyn Children’s History of the World (1969) by Plantagenet Somerset Fry (oh, that name) and the second was R.J. Unstead’s Story of Britain (1970), with beautiful illustrations by Victor Ambrus.

The third was Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim (1953). To be clear: I was a child when I read Fry and Unstead. I was seventeen when I read Lucky Jim. To be clearer: I continue to read all three.

Amis’ novel of Jim Dixon, a disaster-prone History lecturer at a British university in the years following the Second World War, is a hilarious, rage-filled attack upon the fustiness of bourgeois, provincial England, its pretensions, its petty but stultifying class differences, its sexual unease. In later life, Amis complained to his son Martin that he couldn’t abide modern literature, swearing: “I’m never going to read another novel that doesn’t begin with the sentence, ‘A shot rang out.’.” Fittingly, perhaps, Lucky Jim was itself a shot that rang out in the early 1950s, an opening salvo of the ‘Angry Young Men’ movement that helped blow away the cobwebs of Victorian repression and deference in British society.

Book cover of the Penguin edition of Lucky Jim, 1965.Cover for the Penguin edition of Lucky Jim, 1965.

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Teaching Life and Death Stories in University Classrooms – Part 4

Today’s post is the final essay in a four part series that began as different conversations about teaching Mary Jane Logan McCallum and Adele Perry’s Structures of Indifference, winner of The Indigenous History Book Prize, awarded by the Indigenous History Group of the Canadian Historical Association. Each week will will focus on one professor’s experiences teaching the book to undergraduate students and – in the final week – we conclude with a reflection on teaching the book to graduate nursing students. Because we were teaching students from different academic backgrounds and stages of career, we used different teaching strategies. But we shared the pedagogical goal of using an individual tragedy – Brian Sinclair’s death – to encourage students to grapple with the ongoing impact of settler colonialism on Indigenous communities and the structures that shape their lives.

By Christine Ceci

I taught Structures of Indifference to a graduate level seminar (Masters) on the nature of nursing knowledge, in which a central goal is for students to become more familiar with the nature of knowledge development in nursing, including developing critical stances in relation to concepts and issues relevant to knowledge development more generally. The course materials include readings from multiple disciplines including nursing, sociology, history, and philosophy. My approach to teaching is influenced by Foucault’s strategy of problematization and effective history, using both historical and contemporary materials to begin to see and understand the processes through which the past becomes the present. In this context, the critical concern is not so much to understand the past but to understand the present (of nursing specifically). The students are practicing nurses who have returned to school for advanced degrees. Continue reading