Friday, February 29, 2008

The Successful Combination of History and Celebrity Gossip

I was introduced to the historical fiction The Luxe by Anna Godbersen in the Style section of last Saturday’s Globe and Mail.[1] There was something very appealing about the idea of reading a novel for “blog research”, so later that day I visited Chapters and purchased my own copy. I knew I had made a good decision when I read the blurb on the back cover of The Luxe by Cecily von Ziegesar, who is the author of the popular book/television series Gossip Girl, and describes the novel stating, “Mystery, romance, jealousy, betrayal, humor, and gorgeous, historically accurate details”. The Luxe most certainly contains all of these qualities, as it follows the lives of both rich adolescents and the young people who serve them, with the former being forced to choose between maintaining a life of luxury or being with the people they love.

Within two evenings I had begun and finished this easy and entertaining read, having reached many of the same conclusions as the Globe and Mail reviewer Leah McLaren: this novel is an 1890s version of Gossip Girl, that is also very reminiscent of today’s celebrities such as Paris Hilton, who are famous solely because they are rich. What McLaren failed to mention, however, is how brilliantly Godbersen understands the importance of “audience”. The Luxe is written for teens and young adults, who will easily be lured into the world of the 19th century through the familiar theme of the wealthy behaving badly. Furthermore, once Godbersen has her readers firmly planted in the 1890s, she envelops them with an accurate historic atmosphere, which is created through the use of well researched details. Margaret Atwood, who covers a much more serious historical topic in her novel Alias Grace, takes a similar approach to writing historical fiction, and points out how involved in the details she became. Atwood explains, “...I found myself wrestling not only with who said what about Grace Marks but also with how to clean a chamber pot, what footgear would have been worn in the winter, the origins of quilt pattern names, and how to store parsnips.”[2]

My public history course touched on many of these same topics in our recent discussion of historical fiction. We came to a general consensus that novels should not replace academic texts, but rather they should be used as educational tools to set a historic tone and spark the reader’s interest to learn more about history. Although I would like to claim that The Luxe will inspire young girls everywhere to start researching 19th century New York City, I am satisfied with that fact that if nothing else, this novel does give readers a glimpse into a historical period that they may never have previously encountered.

[1] Leach McLaren, “Tabloid Tales with a Twist” in The Globe and Mail , Print Edition 23/02/08 Page L3

[2] Margaret Atwood, “In Search of Alias Grace: On Writing Canadian Historical Fiction”, in The American Historical Review, Vol. 103, No. 5 (Dec., 1998)

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The CBC Digital Archives: An Entertaining Presentation of History

The more time I spend learning about Digital History, the more I become convinced that what makes the digital world such an important tool for the Public Historian, is that it allows us to give the public access to materials they otherwise would not easily be able to view. That being said, it still has been difficult to try and understand both the theoretical and practical components involved in actually doing digital history; nothing has motivated me more to continue to acquire more digital skills, than CBC’s Archives.

The CBC Archives website is attractive to look at while still being simple and user friendly; more importantly, the content of the site is so powerful and interesting that I have often been drawn into it for hours. The CBC’s Archives contain numerous audio and video clips from CBC’s vast archival collection, which depict all aspects of Canadian life. This website appeals to the general public as well as to long time CBC fans, because each a/v clip comes with the name of the program and the interviewer, a description of how this episode played into the climate of the time, while still emphasizing the effect it had on the company and particular interviewer.

The best feature of CBC’s Archives is the way in which clips are arranged and categorized. Immediately upon entering the site the visitor notices On this Day which features a past video or radio clip that had aired on this same day in CBC history. Underneath that section is my favourite portion of the site: Great Interviews. These clips feature CBC’s most famous and notorious interviews, most of which I have watched over the course of the last couple of months. Some of the people interviewed are extremely famous individuals, others I have never even heard of before. Due to my love of music, my favourite clip is Peter Gzowski’s interview in 1977 of Iggy Pop, who had been one of the founders of the punk rock movement in the 1960/70s. Interestingly, after watching this clip I realized that one my favourite post rock bands, Mogwai, has made use of this archival footage and used this particular interview in the background of their song “Punk Rock”.

If visitors are not as interested in the interviews as I am, one can easily use the site’s search engine or choose a specific clip category that appeals to them. Essentially, the visitor gets to decide for themselves what portion of Canadian or CBC’s history they are most interested in, which includes a wide range of topics such as interviews with Playboy Bunnies, radio reports about the world wars, or coverage of the past Olympic Games. Regardless of what they choose, users are able to engage with historical materials they otherwise would not be given access to. In this way, the CBC Archives are an example of how Digital History can be used to educate and entertain the public.