I noticed that one of the bookstores where I shop, e.g. Waterstones, was placing several books that dealt with the subject of ancient history not in their History section but amid or near the Mind, Body, Spirit, and among the ‘Myth & religion’ section. This to me seemed a misplacement and very odd.
In the branch of my nearest Waterstones store in Canterbury, for example, there was a small card with a black background positioned amid the ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ section, intending to serve as a label for these books and hand written on it was , ‘Alternative History’. The card and books had been positioned mid-shelf under the major classification above in large letters, ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’, aside of which, or close by, would usually be found books on Religion. In a correspondence I received form Waterstones, and to which I refer later below, it seems another classification for books on ancient history can also be looked for, ‘Ancient Civilisation, Myths and legends. (As though ancient history may, like myth, never have happened!)
Books by authors such as Robert Bauval, Graham Hancock, Andrew Collins and Robert Temple are among many whose works are to be found in or near the Mind, Body, and Spirit section in this Waterstones store and yet the subject matter of these books is clearly a serious study and discourse of early history. Their books are highly informed with well-grounded research, thought and ideas about ancient history, early civilisation and their achievement. In investigating ancient history, their writings would often focus on megalithic buildings because these form such a tangible remnant of the past and a source for interpretation as would a potsherd to any archaeologist. It would be difficult to write of these buildings if not in wonderment and appreciation of them, as do these authors. Just as the archaeologist tries to determine the lifestyle of the communities who created, lived and died, with pottery and artifacts relevant to their lives, so these writers research and discuss megalithic buildings, temples and dwellings, for example, to understand the lives of our ancestors who built them and to ask what meaning and purpose they held for these people. They explore the evidence and consider the motivation and possible beliefs of these ancient people. These books explore the timeline of events and try to resolve what took place when, why and how just as any history book would. The difficulty with a study into ancient history is, of course, that the evidence, though magnificent, is also vague. Interpretation of this evidence from its astonishing traces is sometimes incredulously exploited and sometimes incredulously stupid. Yet, when approached from a more sensible perspective, and when integrating a range of knowledge from different disciplines, such as these authors have, their books try, and are often able, to make valid sense of what we see and what may have been. These academic disciplines with which they try to synthesise the study of history include the sciences, physics, astronomy, geology, archaeology, palaeontology, mythology anthropology, psychology etc. This is history at its best. It exemplifies and qualifies the purpose of our exploring history in finding answers that explain our ancestor’s quests, and in understanding our own human nature, the conquests that have lead us to where we are, what we have become in the present and what we might yet become.
Why then are these books classified in stores as ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ or perhaps ‘Religion’ or ‘legend’?
Another curiosity of the classification that occurs for example within the Canterbury shop I’ve mentioned, is that the ‘Alternative History’ is located two floors away from the ‘History’ book section’, the former on the first floor and the latter at basement level, quite some distance apart. Acting out of interest as to why this arrangement had been arrived at I asked the shop assistant if he was able to explain the stores’ policy when arranging and classifying the books in this way. He made an attempt to answer the question as one who clearly was reluctant to admit he didn’t really know but rather preferred instead to appear informed by attempting to provide an answer. He clearly had not read the books I quoted as examples to gauge why there was a dislocation between books that the store held on history. He said that books in the Mind Body Spirit section would often make fanciful claims about mysteries and beliefs such as references to UFOs and the like. I reasonably guessed he was similarly referring to books on astrology and those that write of fairies, a belief in guardian angels, or ‘field’ energies etc., that also adorn the shelves and subject matter of the ‘Spirit’ and ‘Religion’ section, among which I had to browse to find the history books I was looking for. I pointed out that the books to which I had referred did not contain unfounded commentary of this nature. They were not suggesting we had been visited by extraterrestrials that built the pyramids of Giza, for example. I did not receive a satisfactory explanation to my enquiry. He did say that each store decided its own policy on where it would place and classify books within its environs. Of that I remained unconvinced, but that did not matter, I felt they could classify books as they wished in their store. The point of my enquiry was missed. It still seemed to me that books about history, whether classified as recent history, medieval history, classical history or alternative history, could at least be rationally placed side by side, not kept several floors apart from each other as though one might contaminate the other.
Having read many authoritative books on ancient history, I wondered if there were something deeper going on that would account for the displacement of books and explain the inconvenience and disassociation. I wrote to Waterstones outlining my observations as to how they had classified and disassociated books on history within their store and asking them to comment. The reply, for which I am grateful, came from Scott Furnell-Calvert of the store’s ‘Experience Team’ who wrote as follows, “I can confirm that our buying and marketing team’s position these types of books thusly as they sit in a part of the hierarchy called Ancient Civilisations, Myths & Legends. Books which are kept here, usually posit theories about ancient civilisations, which contain elements which are not validated by ‘academic’ historians or material substance and would contain claims, which might generally be regarded as controversial. Many of these types of books posit suggestions that ancient civilisations were in some way formed or influenced by paranormal/extra-terrestrial life. Some also suggest that there is a missing civilisation ‘link’ and advanced knowledge/technologies, which conventional historians would say could not have existed to establish the advances in civilisation that occurred during those periods. In both examples, neither of these would be substantiated by conventional historians and the evidence put forward could also be interpreted in more than one way. This is why they are not kept in History.
I hope this offers some clarity on our positioning of these titles in our bookshops.”
I must confess I was, in part, expecting this reply. I could not help but be forewarned that books of this nature are often dismissed and stripped of academic value by writers or proponents of a version of history that is not consistent with their own previously scripted concepts. According to these ‘academic historians’, of which Waterstones’ Scott Furnell-Calvert speaks and clearly supports, the authors to which I refer are somehow misguided to comment and deliberate upon the subject because they are not, in their view, historians by profession, and history belongs only to those that are the full-time academics in the field. It’s their interpretation only to be offered as a serious, factual study, or interpretation of facts. It is as though other writers, not historian by trade, require their consent to write upon the subject if they want they work to be upheld. These ‘academic historians’, if they exist actually, would care to deny others status as cogent researchers and writers upon their ‘academic’ subject’. In the case of authors, such as those I mention, this is clearly unacceptable. Their work is far to well grounded in investigative research to warrant such dismissal.
I replied to Scott Furnell-Calvert of Waterstones pointing out that the books and authors that I referred to as examples are not providing poorly researched, non-academic content. These authors are evidently highly intelligent. It would seem inappropriate to say they were not academic and they often have relevant credentials (though these are not necessarily required if their work stands up to scrutiny.) Their work is often well reviewed and appraised by several ‘peers’, academically able to provide a sound, credible review. And what is a ‘conventional historian’ I asked? (Raising a query in support of authors who will frequently have to make the point that the potency of their work is unnecessarily and inappropriately quenched apparently in respect of others seen to be holding an authority upon the subject) Is a ‘conventional historian’ one (who these authors would pose) may not accept a change in their interpretation of history? Is it someone who is reluctant to accept that interpretations of ancient history are open to review and interpretation by anyone capable of doing so and not just by those in their chosen ‘allowed’ group of ‘academic historians’? Is it really wise and fair to have these books placed amid fantasy when clearly they comprise a serious study in ancient history, early civilisation and technologies, ancient Egypt and a study of the Pyramids, for example? Is there, for example, an academic, conventional, historian who can explain fully how the Great Pyramid was built? The work of these authors I mention does try hard to address such questions and explain possible answers with equal sincerity and sound ability in handling and interpreting the information available as anyone can, often incorporating their own fieldwork and professional credentials. This must surely make their work important and valid. I asked if Waterstones could define whom they consider ‘academic historian’ and ‘conventional historian’? I’ve no reply as yet. Would they be so different from authors who, whether or not have a degree, MA or PHD, in History, clearly have a relevant background, a qualification or journalistic credential to study and relate the subject they have investigated? When an author suggests that early civilisations had a technological ability which we have yet to decide, or fathom, such as when building the Great Pyramid for example, they are not making an unrealistic statement but a statement of fact that prompts further study, and their speculations, if academically presented, should surely be positioned for the reader with an interest in history to find. This, in my view, should be the History section, not the Mind Body Spirit section where customers would not perhaps be looking.
It seems to me a very inaccurate and unfair summation of the studious material in these books, and their academic prowess to locate them amid a section in retails stores that is essentially based around fantasy. These books are not making crazy claims of fantasy, (I am not referring to those that do) though they may suggest an interpretation that requires imagination, perception and, possibly, a new realisation. By placing these particular books, and others like them, in a fantasy section, Waterstones, for one retail store as an example, is perpetuating the idea that somehow the content of these books is less important, less scholarly, less accurate, less grounded, less informed than in the History section. (While I am sure many a Mind Body Spirit Book is excellent and fit for purpose in its own way) Also, this location in ‘Mind, Body Spirit or ‘Myth and Religion’, implies that the content is not to be regarded as a serious handling of the known facts such as books found in the History section. The authors of the book s to which I cited as examples earlier and which are representative of many that are similar, appear to provide detailed academic references as much as would be expected of the academic historian and ‘conventional historian’. Their field work and ability to assimilate and integrate different disciplines seems commendable and this is often noted as a trait or ability lacking in the work of the academic in a specific field, perhaps such as the ‘conventional historian.’ To say that they do not make a contribution to our study of history would be incorrect.
With regard to the comment comment that books on ancient history may “contain claims, which might generally be regarded as controversial,” I replied pointing out, for example, that when Robert Bauval and Adrian Gilbert wrote ‘The Orion Mystery’, it was not a fantastical claim that the pyramids of Giza were aligned to some of the stars in the constellation of Orion. It was an observation and suggestion based upon interpretation of the evidence that was soundly argued and well received and reviewed by many in a position to understand the material posited. In progressing our knowledge of this ancient civilisation it remains a worthy book and a prompt to consider the possibilities that are not closed in our study of history. If a book such as this does make a claim considered by others to be controversial, it would seem unnecessary to relegate them from the section or category to which they belong for that reason. Ancient history is a topic that is unlikely to be addressed if not without speculation. All well considered and argued suggestions should not be swept aside until found less worthy than the works of any other books by ‘conventional historians’ that aim or claim to address history similarly by way of their interpretations of the past. In the case of the authors and their books I use as examples, good questions are raised and good answers sought. It would seem necessary to include these books in the History section because their discourse on ancient history is as valid as any other.
As yet I am still wondering if perhaps Watersones will consider scutinising more so the books on its shelves currently classified under Mind Body Spirit, or Myth and Religion etc., checking those on ancient history, ancient technology, ancient civilisation, ancient Egypt, and studies of its pyramids, for example, for academic credential and re-evaluating them for the quality of study and contribution to our informed study of history and civilisation they provide before relegating them all to the less applicable category of ‘Myth & Religion’, or ‘Myth & Legend’.
Photo: A book store (not Waterstones)
Photo credit: Polifemus / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)