Historical Thought Experiment

Early in the semester, I give students the following quotation from John Ruskin’s 1877 history of Venice.

Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts—the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others; but of the three, the only quite trustworthy one is the last.

I then give them this thought experiment.

Let’s say the year is 2115 and an English class (at this university?) is discussing the historical context for the popular fiction of the late 20th and early 21st century: Gone Girl (2012), the Harry Potter series (1998-2007), 50 Shades of Grey (2011), the Left Behind series (1995-2007), and…we had to go there…the Twilight Series (2005-2008).

  1. What “truths” would these books communicate about the late 20th and early 21st century?
  2. What “deeds” and “words” from the period would need to be paired with this “art” to help it make sense?
  3. It appears everyone of you have encountered Shakespeare’s art in his plays. What “truths” could you infer about the “deeds” and “words” of Shakespeare’s time?
  4. What kinds of “deeds” and “words” seem most important for understanding an author who wrote in Shakespeare’s time?
Historical Thought Experiment

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