One of the pleasures of spending a week in a place like Amsterdam is having the opportunity to browse the numerous bookstores that dot the city. I can spend hours in bookstores, especially antiquarian bookstores where the added bonus is the smell of old leather-bound volumes. There were quite a number of small-independent bookstores and the people who work in them are very helpful. Unfortunately, they are dealing with the same pressures that independent shops here are currently facing. Luckily, there were a few stores that stocked English titles so I was able to find and purchase books about the history of the city. Some might think it a waste of time, but one of the things I enjoy when traveling is spending time in a cafe with a good book on the history of the city in question. As absorbed as I am with American history, I am always surprised by how easily I can distance myself from it when overseas. It’s a healthy diversion and one that I should engage in much more often to deal with any lingering vestiges of “American Exceptionalism”.
I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the selection that you can find in Amsterdam’s bookstores, especially in the area of American history. In fact, the selection of American history books is actually better compared with what I can find at my local Barnes and Noble. It would have been somewhat depressing if the only book on the Civil War was the Politically Correct Guide, but there were plenty of new titles to choose from and even a nice selection of new Lincoln titles.
What do the number of bookstores and quality of selection tell us about Dutch culture? Not exactly sure, so perhaps I need to return at some point to investigate further.
It’s such a breadth of fresh air to read this story in light of the recent attempts by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other heritage groups to distort the past by honoring slaves as Confederate soldiers. Finally, a story where the historical record justifies the placing of a marker acknowledging the military service of Amos McKinney, a former slave who served voluntarily in the 1st Alabama Cavalry USV. McKinney’s granddaughter, Johnnie McKinney Lester, remarked that her grandfather “would be so proud of all of this.” Well, we have no way of knowing what he might think, but at least this recognition reflects the historical record and doesn’t have to distort the past (as in the case of so-called “black Confederates”, which ignores the fact of coercion) to satisfy our own emotional need to remember and commemorate our past.
Wish I could be part of the festivities up in Gettysburg this week. Well, not really. I read in the newspaper that this year’s reenactment promises to be the “biggest and best so far.” That must mean that there will be more people involved, more noise, and more smoke; it promises to be an entertaining show. Maybe for next year, instead of going for the biggest and best, organizers can work on making it more realistic. You want to get me to Gettysburg in early July than give me real suffering. I’m not asking for much, just something that reflects a reenactor’s sincere interest in wanting to better understand the horror of battle. Perhaps a blow to the head with the but of a rifle or a minor flesh wound caused by a bee bee that could be extracted with period medical tools. Now that would point to a sincere commitment to experiencing the past through the other-regarding emotions of empathy and sympathy.
There is precedent for this. Consider the yearly reenactments of Jesus’s crucifixion that take place in the Philippines.
There is something admirable in their willingness to endure such a severe amount of pain in order to fully embrace what they interpret to be the significance of Jesus’s sacrifice. For many it is the only way to fully embrace both the historical event of the crucifixion as well as its spiritual import. By extension one wonders how the experience of the crowd is shaped in comparison with a less realistic reenactment of the crucifixion. Are they able to identify more closely with the nature of the event being portrayed? Of course, I am not suggesting that Civil War reenactors try to bring a bit more of the reality of the battlefield to their performance. What it does bring home for me, however, is how little suffering and sacrifice comes through in reenactments. Though I’ve only been to a few reenactments I’ve never felt anything close to a feeling of sorrow or even admiration for what the soldiers endured during the Civil War. It’s always been entertaining and fun for me, in part because I know the reenactor is not suffering in any way, and because of that I’ve always felt just a little uneasy about attending such events.