The Professional Dilettante

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Sometimes when someone asks me why I like working for this magazine, I say it’s the perfect job for a dilettante. I’m a dilettante—a dabbler in history—and I’m glad.

History has the great advantage for a magazine editor of being everything that ever happened. That’s quite a subject matter. You get to choose from all the best stories of all time. And of course, history is also more than just everything that ever happened. It’s how we understand everything that ever happened. After all, history is what you’re after when you go to a therapist to uncover your early years, or you want to find out about your family and start digging up your roots. Or you read someone’s résumé, or look up a car’s repair record in Consumer Reports , or try to figure out whom to vote for. History is an enormous part of how we make sense of the world.

But why dabble? For one thing, it’s the only serious way I know of to deal with the information overload. A newspaper and a television are invaluable for keeping a basic handle on the world, while to truly know a subject through and through you need books—and many long hours. I think a magazine is the best thing in between, precisely because it’s where you can dabble. You can get more depth and information than on the television news, and you control it, absorbing as much as you want, when and where you want. It’s a very flexible, efficient source of entertainment and information.

And serious dabbling shouldn’t get you only superficial tidbits. Ideally you get just the opposite—a distillation of the very best storytelling and the best research and writing by the very best writers there are. That’s what we aim to present, of course.

So I have the lucky job of professional dabbler. It teaches me a lot. In this issue alone I’ve gotten a whole new sense of the young Abraham Lincoln, a greatly enlarged perspective on our past and present immigration problems, an absorbing introduction to that underappreciated pioneer of modern popular music Ethel Waters, and much more. And by dabbling I keep learning and relearning broader lessons too. Here are three that should suggest how fundamentally useful I think dabbling in history can be:

First, I keep learning how people don’t really change that much and how new crises and challenges aren’t always that new, which means that you can draw both comfort and real lessons from the past. Just look at the unending tides of nativism and anti-immigration fervor chronicled in Bernard Weisberger’s piece in this issue to see what I mean.

Second, I keep learning that we don’t live in a world of simple good and evil—of evil corporations and noble workers, of noble executives and evil unions, of good Americans and vile foreigners, or of any other such thing. That may seem perfectly obvious, but I also keep rediscovering the nearly universal urge to dangerously oversimplify that way. History helps me guard against that, I find, and thus helps me see more clearly.

Finally, I keep learning that in America—not everywhere on earth, but in America—life really has gotten better for most people. Dipping into the past, I keep seeing ways we have it better—in our life expectancy, our medicine, our education, our workplace safety, our mobility, the comfort of our homes, and on and on. Even most of the very poor have it better. Not that anything is perfect, of course, or even that people are generally happier. It’s just that while it’s always terrifically hard work to make the world a better place, it’s also folly to feel too sorry for ourselves.

Especially with my job.