Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.
— Daniel Burnham
My father couldn’t read until he was about ten years old. Growing up as part of a large working-class family in Detroit, he had just never made it a priority to learn, nor had anyone else made it one to teach him. What did it matter really? He would quit school and get a job working with his hands in a factory, as his father had before him. His lot in life was already cast.
But then one day, when he was rather uncharacteristically passing some time in his school’s library, he came upon a book full of wonderful things — one of those big, profusely illustrated coffee-table numbers about ancient civilizations. Looking at it, this scruffy boy felt like Jean-François Champollion must have when he gazed upon Egyptian hieroglyphs for the first time with a similar sense of incomprehension. What did the book say about all these wonderful things? What did all those big words mean?
There was only one thing for it: my father learned to read so he could find out who built the Pyramids of Giza and why. Ditto the Oracle of Delphi, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Library and Lighthouse of Alexandria, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Great Wall of China… all those wonders that continue to speak to us down through the millennia.
The love of reading — the love of knowledge — that the book inculcated in my father never left him. He went through university on the GI Bill, and went on from there to a successful business career. Because of this, I was born into circumstances dramatically different from those he had known as a boy, with vastly wider horizons of opportunity opening out before me. It didn’t require an act of self-reinvention for me to get an education; it was expected.
My father and I have had our problems over the years, as so many fathers and sons do. Yet the story of The Book of Wonders, which he told me many years ago, has never left me. In addition to speaking volumes about my father’s character, it says much about the power of humanity’s most inspiring achievements to… well, to inspire. Much of our species’s collective history is a chronicle of mistakes made and then repeated, injustice piled on injustice, might making right again and again. But, thankfully, that’s not all our history is made of. There are also these other things that stand above the fray, manifestations of a creative impulse that vies constantly with the impulse for destruction in the human soul. The noblest, most human act of all, I’ve decided, is to make one of these worthy and beautiful things, whether it be a building, a voyage, a play, a piece of music, a fresh scientific understanding, or a new political order. These are the worldly wonders I want to write about here. For to learn about them — to know about them — ennobles each of us as well. This I truly believe.
In other words, these are subjects which come as close to the realm of the sacred as this poor agnostic can get. Rest assured, then, that I don’t take them lightly. It’s only at this point in my life, after forty-some years of learning, listening, thinking, speaking, and writing — hopefully more of the first three than the last two! — that I can imagine myself approaching them in a format like this one.
Up to this point, I’ve made my mark on the Internet, such as it is, as the author of The Digital Antiquarian, a history of digital culture and interactive entertainment during the formative decades of the 1970s, 1980s, and — now, in my latest articles — the 1990s. I’ve learned much about the practical aspects of researching and writing over the time that I’ve spent working on that project, knowledge which I’ve added to my store of wisdom from my undergraduate and graduate years at university. I really do feel that I’ve improved by leaps and bounds in recent years as an historian and as a writer. So, while I do want to see that other project through until it reaches a natural stopping point, I want to join to it something bigger. Something like this. The Digital Antiquarian and The Analog Antiquarian will continue for the foreseeable future as companion sites, with new articles appearing on each site on alternating weeks.
I must admit that this project was actually born from that other one in quite a direct way. Specifically, it was born out of a computer game — a very special computer game which even some of you non-gamers may have heard of. It’s called Civilization, and it’s kind of amazing in its scope and sheer chutzpah. When the time came to play and write about that insanely ambitious attempt to capture all of human endeavor in interactive form, I found myself wanting to do more, more, more with the topic. This site, which will take at least its first slate of worldly wonders directly from the game of Civilization, is the result. I hope this fact will neither prejudice nor intimidate you. But, should it do either, rest assured that this introduction will quite probably be the only time I mention the game of Civilization on this site, and that knowledge of it is neither expected nor required. The same applies to all of the other subjects I write about over on that other site of mine. (Of course, if you do happen to be interested in computer technology, digital culture, and/or gaming, by all means check it out!)
It’s perfectly reasonable to ask at this point what I, a generalist — a dabbler? — can add to subjects which dedicated specialists, many of whom are doubtless far smarter than I, spend lifetimes studying. The reasonable answer is… nothing. Except this:
The era of the Renaissance Man is, it seems safe to say, well behind us. Our knowledge of the world has progressed to the point that making major breakthroughs in just about any field requires one to specialize. This is fair enough. The danger it creates, though, is that of many separate silos of specialists who talk to one another using language that is all but opaque to outsiders, whom they rarely speak to anyway. Academics in the various fields of history, as in so many other disciplines, continue to do important work, coming to understand the past that made us who we are better and better. Yet most have neither the training nor the predilection to communicate their findings to outsiders in an accessible, readable way. And that’s a shame, because our cultural heritage belongs to everyone.
This, then, is where I come in. Among my shabby collection of special talents is that of telling stories in interesting, engaging ways. I am, I’m not ashamed to admit, a popularizer by training and predilection. While I would never dare to directly compare my abilities with theirs, I do try to write in the spirit of such narrative-history betters as Edward Gibbon, H.G. Wells, and Will Durant. I try to seek out the middle ground between superficiality and tedium, and I believe I’ve gotten pretty good at it over the years, adhering always to my great guiding principle: “Don’t Be Boring.” As I embark on this new project, I hope I can tell some of these greatest stories any writer could ever ask for with verve and fresh insight, in solidly crafted prose that might even threaten to sparkle from time to time. If I can manage that, I can count myself as having used my humble talents to their best advantage.
Good long-form writing isn’t exactly what the Internet is most known for, but my earlier endeavors have seemed to show that there’s an audience for it out there. I promise to give it my best shot, and to present my work to you in a way that prioritizes an enjoyable reading experience above everything else. This means a website with clean typography, with no advertisements or other distractions, one which strains to be as effortlessly navigable and effortlessly readable — in all meanings of the word — as possible.
In return, if you like what I do and see a certain value in it, I could use your help. Sadly, I’m not independently wealthy. While money is by no means my major motivation — I would be a terrible entrepreneur indeed if writing lengthy articles about history on the Internet was my chosen way of making a fortune — I can only continue this project in the long term if I can find a way to make it pay to some reasonable extent. The most direct (and most preferred) way you can help out is to become a sponsor on Patreon, at any amount from $1 per article on up. Given that I will be publishing two articles per month, you can thus help to ensure that I’m able to continue doing this work for a long time to come for as little as $2 per month — quite possibly less than the cup of coffee you buy every morning on your way to work.
In addition to Patreon, there are other ways you can help out. I gratefully accept direct donations through PayPal, for one. And in time, my plan is to begin to turn the stories I tell into ebooks, which you can help me out by purchasing. (Patreon subscribers: don’t worry, I’ll make sure you’re taken care of with free copies when this happens.) Finally, if you enjoy what you read here, please tell anyone you know who might also be interested. As the world’s worst social networker — I did say my collection of talents was small, didn’t I? — I’m dependent upon all of you to get the word out.
One final thing you can do for me has nothing to do with providing money or readers. When I make mistakes — and believe me, I will make mistakes — don’t hesitate to tell me about it in the comments section. Whether it’s a typo, an error of fact, or a judgment that isn’t supported by the evidence, by all means, point it out. I love to have my assumptions challenged, and appreciate any good-faith feedback that makes my writing better. We’re all on this journey together, and I hope to learn from you even as you learn a little something from me.
And with that, and giving due deference to my first rule of writing, it’s time to move on to the meat of this website. Thank you for reading, thank you for any support you can provide, and welcome aboard this exciting journey through some of the great wonders of history. I think it’s going to be one hell of a ride. If I can inspire someone else the way that my father was once inspired, that will be great. Regardless, I’ll do my level best to do justice to these wondrous stories of human achievement.