I am often puzzled by the way human beings tend to forget things, not just the small occurrences of daily life, but the important things, the links and connections of people and events. This ability of people, knowledgeable people, or so I thought to simple erase the events that have shaped their lives and times from their memory came to light the other evening.
I was attending a meeting and as is often the case these days, people ask me about my writing. “What are you working on now?” they often ask. I am sure that this is done mostly out of politeness and in the spirit of the kind of small talk that pervades the cocktail hour before dinner is served. Or, they may ask, “Where do you get your ideas from?” This is all very nice and like anyone I am pleased for the personal attention, but when I tell them I am not sure they really want to know. It only takes a few seconds, but I can see some of them get that deer in the headlights look as their eyes glaze over. I write historical fiction. My plots originate with curious incidents from the past. Sometimes a place, often some obscure fact comes to my attention and then I begin to run with it, threading together a plausible scenario.
It is when I go on to describe the connections between the real and my fiction that I lose my listeners. You have to understand that most of my conversations are with people near my age, baby boomers, and yet their knowledge of what has happened in this world during the past few decades is frightening. It is as if in their worldview none of the upheavals and struggles in modern history have ever occurred.
It is far worse when I speak to people far younger than me. For those who have been processed through the public school system in the past twenty years true learning seems to have been sacrificed to achieving test scores.
I think I know what has created such a lamentable situation, it is the failure of people to read books. In a world of tabloid news and unreality TV reading for enjoyment seems too much work. Forget about reading for understanding. It is not that the books are not out there, or that they are unavailable. It comes down to simple effort. We live in a time of instantaneous gratification and reading requires that we turn on our minds. When that happens people begin to think and neither the politicians nor the commercial colossi that support them want that.
Coming back to my conversations with the forgetful, let me give you an example lest you think I am overly suffering from intellectual snobbery. I was talking with a man in his late forties the other night. Now, as far as I know, he is a college graduate and runs a successful local business. He was asking about my latest book, Revenge of the Dragon Lady. I had been handing out postcards with the book’s cover on them to some others in the room and he asked me for one.
As you can see, there is an Asian woman on the cover and a photo of the Imperial Japanese Navy with its rising sun emblazoned along the bottom edge. He looked at the card and then asked me, “What’s it about?”
I told him that it was set in the Philippines in 1938 and was about Japanese espionage and treachery before the Second World War. Then he said something quite astonishing.
“You mean after we dropped the big one on Hiroshima!” and nodded his head knowingly.
I stood for a moment trying to grasp what thread of misinformation must be running through his brain. I shook my head and said, “No, this takes place several years before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.”
I wasn’t trying to make him uncomfortable and was hoping that in stating the correct sequence of events that we could move on allowing him the faux pas of a misstatement. Or so I thought until the level of his gaps in knowledge were further affirmed. For a moment the headlights seemed to stun him and then he said, “Japanese? Really?”
Now I have to admit that for just a nanosecond I thought he was putting me on, but then I saw the gears turning inside his head. Somewhere he had heard this fact, and yet the most tumultuous event in global history, the one that has shaped nearly his entire life might have occurred on Mars for all he knew–or cared.
Okay, so by now you are just thinking this is a one in million case. Ah, but I beg to differ. Try a little experiment if you like. It’s a simple one. Ask someone to name all of the Presidents since 1932, or given that it is in the news these days, ask someone to tell you what NATO is and why it was created, or ask someone to name all the ‘stans’. You get the idea.
I used to travel the globe on business and it was important to know what was happening in each country in the regions I dealt with, so I had to keep abreast. What used to shock me was not what I knew about other countries and their histories, but what the people of those countries knew about America.
I come away from such conversations as I have described with a sense of unease. The no-nothings and anti-science crowds that scream invectives at people different from them are the product of poor education and rudderless leadership. As if in confirmation of this observation, as I walked through the parking lot I passed the car of the man with no grasp of history and as I might have predicted on its rear bumper was a ‘Make America Great Again’ sticker.
All of my novels including Revenge of the Dragon Lady are available at Amazon.com.