David Wallechinsky Is A Human Encyclopedia
Photo by Lele Saveri
A longtime reader of this magazine (such as yourself) already knows about David Wallechinsky because you read the People’s Lists feature in every issue. That’s the column that takes excerpts from Wallechinsky’s (along with his late father and sister) brilliant 70s and 80s reference books about… everything.
The People’s Almanac and The Book of Lists were the internet before there was an internet, Wikipedia before Wikipedia: free and loose approaches to ideas, radical thought, and new ways of thinking about history. But oh, wait, that isn’t what the internet is at all, is it? That’s what the internet is supposed to be and would be if it weren’t all porn, photo blogs by wealthy children, and flame wars. In fact, if the internet were anything like David Wallechinsky’s brain, we’d all be getting smarter rather than dumber.
Anyway, he’s a great historian whose praises are not sung as often as they should be. So here’s an interview with him.
Vice: How did you get interested in studying history?
David Wallechinsky: I was lucky to have parents who read for pleasure, who were interested in reading and learning. When I was a little boy, they gave me the World Book Encyclopedia. I would just let it lead me from one thing to another, never knowing where it would take me. I come from a family of autodidacts, so I think I was kind of amazed when I got to school and saw that teachers were able to make history boring. I’d been led to believe that history was all about interesting people and surprising events, but in school it was a bunch of dates. It’s really a challenge to make history boring, but those teachers managed it.
And today, do you call yourself a historian? Is that what you are?
It depends on which visa application I’m filling out. When I was going to North Korea, I listed “historian.” I’m the vice president of the International Society of Olympic Historians, but obviously that’s just a small part of what interests me. It did work to get me into the country though. Sometimes I call myself a journalist.
When did you start to work professionally as a historian?
The People’s Almanac was the first time that I really took a look at doing something professionally. As a boy I had started reading almanacs. I remember getting to the section on nations of the world—which always fascinated me—and realizing that they were just reprinting government press releases on these places. So I started to dig more deeply. That was a real eye-opener. When my father and I did the first People’s Almanac, I tried to give a more realistic view of what the history of each of these countries was—places like Mozambique and Angola. At the same time, because of my father’s interest in historical characters as human beings, we took this position that the people who make history are just like you and me and the people we see on the street every day. They weren’t sacred characters; they did all the things we did.
What were you doing before the People’s Almanac?
I was in my 20s and I had published a couple of books already. One was about organic gardening and the other was about nitrous oxide as a drug—laughing gas.
Yeah, a couple of friends and I did this book called Laughing Gas. It became kind of a cult thing, particularly because R. Crumb did the cover. We did deep research into the history of the drug, going into the microfilm archives of the UCLA library. It was an obscure topic, but when you enjoy research it almost doesn’t matter what you’re researching. You just enjoy finding something that’s been lost.
But why nitrous? Were you a fan of it recreationally?
Yeah, we had taken it and then we found out that Peter Mark Roget, of Roget’s Thesaurus, had also taken it. His description of it was amazing because it was so accurate and so precise, as one would expect. It got us to thinking, “Where did this drug come from? When did people start doing it? When did they discover it wasn’t just an anesthetic?” We were able to create the history of laughing gas as a recreational drug, which went way back even though nobody had ever written about it before.
I need to find a copy of that.
It’s out there. [laughs]
The two series of books that you’ve worked on have really found ways to make history entertaining—to try to undo the damage that schoolteachers have done.
I’ll pass that along because tomorrow we’re having a reunion of the people who worked for us when my father was alive. The office that he worked in, in Brentwood, is being torn down. But yes, history is just endless good stories.
What do you think of the way that history gets taught at the college level?
Well, I like the ability to zero in on something and specialize in it. I love it when somebody can take just one topic and do tremendous research. I really enjoy that part of academia. My exposure to what’s going on right now, other than having a son who’s a senior at UC Santa Barbara, is that I have students from UCLA who get independent-research credit for working on a web project that I’m doing. It’s about contemporary politics and the US government. It deals with each agency in the government, both what it says it does and what it really does. We have a history section on each one and I always tell these students that the reason we have this is that you can’t really appreciate or understand something like the EPA or FEMA unless you know how it got there. I’ll sometimes ask them what they’re studying in their other classes and, generally speaking, I’m pretty impressed. They don’t really tell me about their history classes. It’s more things like international development or political science. Working on my project is completely different from everything else they’re doing.
My things always dig deeper. We follow the money. You want to know how something works? Find out who’s making a profit on it. I think it’s good for them to see how the government works. I also tell them right at the beginning, “Forget the way you write for your papers. I want you to write in a clearer way, so that a curious high school student could understand the first paragraph that you write and want to read the rest of the article.”
Academic language excludes a lot of people from talking about history or politics. It’s fucked.
I’ve seen real extremes of that. I taught at the International Olympic Academy in Olympia—a postgraduate seminar. Each of the students, who are from all over the world, presents a paper and we critique it. I got really angry with some of them. I’ll pick out like ten words in somebody’s paper and ask, “How many people in this room know what this word means?” And nobody will. I tell them, “If you want to live in a world where the head of your department and six other people appreciate what you say, then you should go to such-and-such university in England. Otherwise, you need to broaden your field.”
Are there any eras in history that you think have a real parallel to what’s going on in the world right now?
The decline of the Roman Empire is a precedent. [laughs] This is a fascinating period—or it will turn out to have been a fascinating period. It’s probably going to be a turning point in history. We just don’t know which direction it’s going in. We’ve gone through the period during the Cold War where there were two superpowers. Then there was one superpower. Then that one superpower—
Totally blew it?
Blew it. And now you’re seeing the rise of regional economic powers such as the EU, China, and India. It’s a whole new world. Even those regional powers don’t know quite where they are headed. History is taught in terms of wars and leaders, but the real changes in history tend to be economic. The globalization and regionalization of economic power is a real turning point.
I guess at best it could be seen as an exciting time to be alive.
Yeah, exciting like the old Chinese curse: “May you live an interesting life.”