I really like old things. I also like really old things. I flirted with about five other constructions of that phrase, but figured it would get dull pretty quickly. But that’s the thing about old stuff – it doesn’t really get dull to me. I’m reading a book right now about the early American trade in China (1780-1840) and keep getting excited by the pictures of old coins and old paintings. The book itself is also great, with its in-depth recounting of the structure of the trade and the problems encountered by Americans in China. It isn’t making a terribly sophisticated argument, and that’s one of the reasons that I like it so much. The author is concerned with painting a picture of how things used to operate, of a time gone by, of relationships and modes of doing business that no longer function in the modern world. He presents an alien world – in both cultural and temporal senses – and then helps me understand it.
Academic history is argumentative history. One of the things that most discourages me in my classes so far is that they’re constantly forcing me to make an argument. “Argue that something changed or didn’t change and explain why. Get at a new (or slightly different) causal explanation for some historical event. Engage critically with sources and form your own opinions about subjects.” All of this advice is perfectly fine. Except that sometimes I just want to sit back and learn something new, to read purely descriptive accounts of a long-neglected place and time, to bask in the warm glow of the past. I want to enjoy the past for itself and not for the argument I can make about it.
Material culture (a fancy way of saying “stuff from the past”) helps me do that. I inherited a huge stamp collection from my grandfather, containing stamps from around the world spanning hundreds of years. Among my favorite subset of this collection (and maybe the only part my wife has any interest in) are the stamps from countries that no longer exist. I find these to be fascinating. Though many of them were colonies (and if there’s one thing I have learned this semester it’s that colonialism is an unmitigated evil), they represent new horizons and engaging stories. Organizing them is like traveling to a new world, encountering something foreign and yet familiar. The same things is true with me and old books. They don’t have to be first editions or anything like that; just holding a book from the 1700s fills me with a sense of community, a strong sense of connection with the people who have lived before me. Seeing the Declaration of Independence in person and wading through old letters from John Quincy Adams all felt like that.
Maybe this just reflects being near the end of my first semester of grad school, but now more than ever I feel like I want to encounter the past without trying to make an arguement about it. I want to encounter it for its own sake, to get to know structures of the past because they are interesting and for no other reason. In short, I want to be antiquarian.