Finding Wisdom at the Library

by Bill Peak

When asked why he chose his particular field of study, labor historian E. P. Thompson, making reference to a long-forgotten 18th century craft, famously answered, “To rescue the poor stockingers.” University of Pittsburgh historian Marcus Rediker might have given a similar reply, though the people he rescues from oblivion in “The Slave Ship” are the African men, women, and children who were both victims and heroes of the trade that helped build (among other jewels in civilization's crown) England's Treasure Houses, Jamaica's Kingston, and Rhode Island's Providence.

Of course “The Slave Ship” isn't going to make anyone's short list of good beach books. Reading about the ease with which fine upstanding “Christian” citizens—representatives of an age we still call “the Enlightenment”—could unhesitatingly murder, torture, rape, and enslave the innocent inhabitants of an Edenic world is, well, unsettling. And yet, I will admit it here, I had trouble putting the book down. I would like to think that this was because Rediker's work is so well researched and evocative. “The Slave Ship” fleshes out and clothes a time and a global enterprise that I had thought beyond the reach of history. And fleshing out this time and enterprise, it makes clear the contradictions in our Western world that would have allowed such an unseemly practice to take place. “The Slave Ship” is one of those rare books—like Jared Diamond's “Guns, Germs, and Steel”—that will utterly change your view of the world.

But I think scholarly interest as an explanation lets me off rather too easily. Though I wanted to believe the pleasure I took in reading “The Slave Ship” purely academic, my conscience kept insisting otherwise. History sets us at such a safe distance, doesn't it, from the object of its study? And then, of course, it gives us 20-20 vision. Again and again, reading “The Slave Ship,” I found myself indulging in the guilty pleasure of judging its villains, of asking myself, smugly, how they could have been so wicked, how could anyone have been so blind to the evil they were committing.

Yet I am the same fellow who just read this year's One Maryland One Book, “The Distance Between Us,” which should have taught me how, in our own time and age, the arbitrary borders erected between nations rich and poor (to protect, among others, my own interests) daily degrade and abuse innocent lives. Two years ago, once again as part of One Maryland One Book, I read “The Cellist of Sarajevo,” which should have taught me how the love I feel for my country, taken to an extreme, could turn me, could turn anyone, into a monster. At a time when it is considered acceptable—when I have considered it acceptable—to bomb enemy-held towns and call the deaths of innocent men, women, and children “collateral damage,” one wonders how future generations will judge us. Will they someday read a book like “The Distance Between Us” or “The Cellist of Sarajevo” and smugly ask themselves how Bill Peak could have been so wicked, how he could have been so blind to the evils committed in his name?

That, of course, is the problem with reading: it forces us to re-examine our view of the world. It threatens us with wisdom.

And so I unhesitatingly recommend to your attention “The Slave Ship,” now available for check-out at the Talbot County Free Library. It will disturb you. It will inform you. And it will take you one large step further along that journey we begin every day toward being more fully alive, more fully human. I wish you bon voyage.