Pandemic Rereads is one of my lockdown projects. Over the next few months I have set myself the goal of going through my study bookshelves in search of books that I have not read in a while. These are books I don’t regularly use in my research or teaching, and so they cry out to be reappraised. I do not claim to be an expert on these books, so I am sure that I am missing many of the nuances in the texts that have been picked up by real experts. Hopefully, though, there is value in casting a fresh pair of eyes over a text that we think we know.
Today I post my thoughts on rereading van Loon’s Lives. The last time I read this I was 15. It was the Summer that my family moved to the Netherlands, and the book was one of many from my parent’s bookshelves that I read during those first few months in a new home in a new country.
International Relations types reading this blog might be reminded of a recent edited book, Return of the Theorists, in which IR scholars imagined conversations with scholars from the past. I did ask one of the co-editors, Ned Lebow, if they had got the idea from van Loon, but he said that they did not. Still both books do, unwittingly, share a common approach.
A quick note for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians: I once found a copy of another book by van Loon (The Home of Mankind) in an antique store in St. John’s. The book had been owned by Joey Smallwood (for those outside the province, he was the first Premier). Sadly the owner wanted way too much money for it.
Page numbers in the text refer to the 1943 London version: Hendrik Willem van Loon, Van Loon’s Lives. Being a true and faithful account of a number of highly interesting meetings with certain historical personages from Confucius and Plato to Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson, about whom we had always felt a great deal of curiosity and who came to us as our dinner guests in a bygone year (London: George G. Harrap, 1943).
The illustrations come from the book and are van Loon’s own.