I had an enjoyable visit recently to the Princeton Day School, whose sophomores are reading A Little History of the United States. (More on that soon in a future entry.) One student's book caught my eye: her neatly colored tabs calling out key pages in the narrative.
Some people respond to color immediately; others seem oblivious to its effects. When first putting together the college American history survey I'm a part of (Experience History; also its shorter version, US: A Narrative History of the Republic, both McGraw-Hill titles) one element I paid close attention to was the coordination of colors used on maps. Too many charts seem to use colors in random fashion: blue for this value, orange for that. But suppose you have a chart for the time it took Americans to travel on a journey starting in New York City during the early years of the Republic. This is how it looks in our text:
In theory, you could choose any color for any value here: blue for 6 days, yellow for 5. I've seen plenty of maps done in that haphazard fashion. But the values shown here represent a progression, from shorter to longer trips. The map becomes easier to read if the colors are chosen as a progression too. I asked production to move from hot colors (purple, red, orange, yellow) into cool colors (green, dark green, blue) to connote fast travel (hot) and slow travel (colder).
Similarly, in showing which nations of the world are the heaviest Internet users, I came across this map in Wikipedia:
It does have a color-coordinated gradation, but to my mind, the gradation is counterintuitive. The heaviest Internet usage here is shown in dark purple, then moving to blue and light blue as usage declines. My guess is that it would make more sense to use "hot" colors like red and orange for the heaviest usage and cold colors for places where the fewest people use the Web. In doing our own map, we started with black as the fewest users ascending to blue, light blue and so on...ending with red as the color for the "hottest," highest percentage of users.
There are complications in achieving this coordination. Graphic designers begin the production process by choosing a "color palette" for the entire book, so that the look and feel of the text is consistent throughout—a good thing. But those restrictions sometimes limit the number of colors available. Bottom line is, being sensitive to color in design makes for better history!
There is potentially no limit to how far you can take a sensitivity to color. The most striking example I'm aware of personally, was in the living room bookshelves of the poet Lucie Brock-Broido. She had her books arranged not alphabetically or even by subject matter, but by the color of their spines! It made for a striking appearance in terms of interior decoration...but I'm thinking she had to have a good memory for the colors of specific books, or she would have spent a long time poking around looking for a particular title!
The following just came up as a review on Amazon for one of my college texts:
So I guess the philosophical question is, do I prefer that he loves the book he didn't read or would I rather he hated the book he did read? Maybe it's a perfect fit. But I'm thinking either he's a jock at a Big-Ten school where his real job is on the football field; or years from now he's going to wish he had challenged himself with a school or a set of courses that actually encouraged the exercise of his cranial appendage.
I should add a brief note, apologizing for my online absence. A book deadline, on the one hand; but on the other, a terrific trip to Greenland, Labrador and Newfoundland, about which I hope to post more soon.
Statue of Columbus in the Library of Congress, Main Reading Room
In June I wrote an entry about my friend and former college roommate, Mike McCann, who has been teaching for many years at Lakeview Academy in Gainesville, Georgia. Mike acted as a terrific sounding board for me when I was writing A Little History of the United States. He is now using the book with his high school students and zipped me an email about what he had done as the term opened, focusing on Columbus’s first native contacts in the Americas. As I am hoping to write a bit more periodically on the subject of education and history, this "first encounter" seemed like a good place to begin. I’m hoping Mike will send me more dispatches as the school year progresses.
I had commented in an earlier email how I’d been struck by Columbus’s boundless confidence in his ability to master the essentials of the Taino language after only a few days’ exploration. He reports that as he traveled from one new settlement to the next, the natives he had taken with him would run “from house to house, and to the towns around, crying out, “Come! come! and see the men from heaven!” Ah yes—perhaps an all too human temptation for Columbus to suppose that he and his fellow Europeans were seen as no less than gods by these people. It turned out that Mike was using the same primary sources to help students explore some of the less obvious crosscurrents in Columbus’s account of his first encounters with the Taino people. Mike’s report:
As George Bush might have said, between Columbus and the Taino there was a bit of misunderestimation going on regarding cultural superiority. (Or perhaps I should say misoverestimation?) For students new to such primary sources, it’s easy to glide along without noticing at first some of the contradictions and underlying crosscurrents. I had a good deal of fun writing about the same problem, except instead of Columbus's recollections, I used Captain John Smith’s account of meeting the Powhatan Indians, in a book I did with Mark Lytle, After the Fact: the Art of Historical Detection. There, we discuss the long-contested question of whether readers can trust Smith’s version of his adventures. To quote from After the Fact:
And then we go on in After the Fact to speculate about what’s really going on when Pocahontas “saves” the life of Captain Smith. Smith tells it pretty much as a kind of adventure romance: hero saved by young damsel. (And this is not the first time he’s told such a tale. He narrates a similar adventure about his earlier travels in eastern Europe.) But Powhatan may have had his own reasons for threatening Smith’s life. Indeed, he may not have been intending to kill Smith at all, but merely subjecting him to a test of courage and making it clear that Smith and these strange new people from across the ocean were Powhatan’s vassals, not his superiors. When two differing cultures first meet, the chance for misunderestimation always remains high.
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors