Some people haven't the slightest interest in reading period literature. "No thanks," they demur. "I'd much rather read books that were were written by my contemporaries." This has always frustrated me because so many of my favorite books were written in the last century (or well before) and yet when I try to persuade to them how modern they still are, they look at me like I'm trying to stuff Queen Victoria into a J. Crew bathing suit.
Well, to a certain point, I get it. To someone who isn't rabid about history, the past can seem awfully dull and two-dimensional. All those stony-faces, stiff postures and overstarched collars. What they need is an entry point. A rabbit hole, so to speak.
Well, I've found one.
Chris Wild's absolutely fascinating blog "How to be a Retronaut" features rare photographs and archival footage that bring the past to life with such vividness and power that you realize these ghosts are our contemporaries; we just happen to be inconveniently separated by the handicap of time instead of distance. When I watch these long-dead people laugh into the camera or dodge between horse-drawn carriages across a busy street, history becomes not only immediate but personal.
Take Edwardian London, for example. Watch this...
...and then read George Gissing's unsparing novel "The Odd Women" which was written around the same time. His tale of two respectable and increasingly impoverished sisters living in London will haunt you all the more after seeing the above glimpse into what -- as Chris Wild so neatly calls it -- "the business of being human was like back then." I swear if I squint, I can see one of Gissing's sisters atop an open-air omnibus on her way to another fruitless job interview.
Or watch this incredibly affecting home movie of a much-loved little girl in 1930's England...
...and then lose yourself in Eleanor Graham's "The Children Who Lived in a Barn", a 1938 classic about five children who are forced to look after themselves after their parents go away and fail to return. After gazing at those cherubic faces smiling out at you from that sepia-toned film footage, Graham's novel will feel like an intimate, first-hand account of children you knew well 80 years ago.
(Image via Persephone Books;
book available here)
Or transport yourself to the glamorous south of France in 1912...
...and then lose yourself Colette's 1910 novel "Vagabond", a poetic, passionate tale about a recently divorced music hall artist who struggles with the familiar conflict of independence versus love. The end of the video clip shows three actresses in much the same type of revue that I envision Renee, the main character, touring in.
There are so many other dazzling photos and images on Chris Wild's blog that I'm practically sitting on my hands to keep from typing about them -- I won't because it'll be more thrilling for you to explore his website on your own. It's still relatively new, which means you can catch up on all his old posts and then come sit by me while we wait/pant for a new one. (For the definition of a retronaut, click here.)
In an amusing corollary to the Macbook "book" protector I recently wrote about, I found this keyboard sticker set featured on the site as well. It's out of stock at the moment, but you can put your name on a waiting list.
And now back to that rabbit hole. With the upcoming release of Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland", here's a rare clip from the 1903 original.
Note: All film footage is viewable in a larger format via "How to Be a Retronaut."