Reading History – The difficulty of understanding the context

reading history
Pic Credit: @Designer_Binod (Click on the image above to view his Twitter handle.)

I’m writing this article as I’m about to begin reading a book that is very controversial to say the least with its author being one of the least liked persons of the 20th century. As I’ve said in my previous blog I’ve decided to read Mein Kampf (translates to “My Struggle” or “My Fight” according to Google Translation in English) by Adolf Hitler. The book was first published in Germany in 1925. Its original English translation was published in full in 1939. I’m not going to discuss further about what’s in the book here, which, frankly I do not know myself. If you want to know more about the book then you can always visit this Wikipedia page to learn more about the book. Rather, today, I want to discuss some difficulties we normally face while reading historical books, primarily those that are political in nature.

For me, reading history is like traveling back in time. It’s about learning how people lived their lives, how leaders thought, what people thought of their leaders & why things happened the way they did. These questions are easier to ask than searching for answers while reading historical books. Reading history is also about unlearning what you think or have in mind today that might relate to the contents in the book and re-learn them as you read along. Even though I’ve yet to start reading Mein Kampf, I think the same applies to it as well.

Now add to these difficulties of reading history, the difficulty added by the controversial nature of the book & it will be immensely difficult to read the book as someone back in the 1920’s did. The other important thing while reading history one should be aware is the context in which the book was written, the society it was written about, the political mindset of people back then and most importantly the mindset of the author at the time. One should be aware of the historic social, political, economical, technological & cultural events leading up to the time when the book was written. After keeping all these things in mind you should also not let your current mindset from the 21st century influence what you think about the things written in the book as you read along.  It’s better to leave that for until after you’ve finished reading the book.

If you don’t have a proper picture of the situation the author talks about in the book then you have to take a break from your reading of the book, learn about the situation they are talking about & continue your reading to get the full picture. This will lead to the book taking much longer to read than it would normally take for recently published books, which I’m sure will be the case with me. I personally think reading the book by forgetting what happened after the book was published will be the best way to read the book, unlearn the history and relearn it with a new perspective.

Another challenge that a historical book like Mein Kampf poses to readers who can only read in language other than the one the author wrote in, is posed by the translation. I always think there are few things here & there that are lost in translation. This, normally, would not be a problem if the author is alive since he can verify & approve or disapprove these translations. But since the author of this book is no more, the things written in the book might be twisted by translators or publishers both wittingly and unwittingly. Also after the copyright of this book expired in Dec, 2015 there are numerous translations of the book written & published by various writers & publishers. So, this further adds to the confusion regarding which translation to trust most and read. As for Mein Kampf I’ve decided to read the translation by Hurst & Blackett Ltd.

There may be more difficulties that I may face while reading this book. I just wanted to note down those that I’m aware of here before reading this book. I hope the information in this article will be helpful to anyone who is trying to read & understand history. If I face further difficulties reading this book then I will certainly let you know on my blog about the book after completing reading it. Till then keep learning.

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