"The past is a foreign country," novelist L.P. Hartley wrote, "they do things differently there." And those extra bits of time around the holidays — on a long drive to visit relatives or waiting for the holiday meal to cook — are perfect for exploring how things were done differently in time periods far from our own.
Stephen Greenblatt's "The Swerve" (W.W. Norton) is a splendidly told chronicle of a 15th century book hunter's incredible discovery in a German monastery — a moldering copy of the ancient Roman poem "On the Nature of Things" by Lucretius — and how that poem's humanistic message inspired new thoughts and swerves in ideas leading to the Renaissance. Sure, a poem might not be a visual stunner like the Sistine Chapel, but, as Greenblatt tells us, "Lucretius' great poem…permanently changed the landscape of the world."
Just as pivotal to history was the arrival, in 1492, of three little caravels in the New World, which Laurence Bergreen describes with plenty of novelistic flourishes in his history "Columbus: The Four Voyages" (Viking). Aside from what we learned as schoolchildren about Columbus sailing "the ocean blue," does anyone know what happened to him later? Bergreen's fascinating chronicle of the explorer portrays him as a flawed, tragic figure, struggling to keep his titles and honors even though, in the eyes of the Spanish Crown, he had failed to deliver "a maritime equivalent to Marco Polo's trading route." Some failure!
A power struggle of another kind is narrated by James Romm in his engaging "Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire" (Alfred A. Knopf). The Macedonian Empire reached the heights of magnificence in 325 BC, and rapidly declined, two years later, with Alexander's death. What happened? The years after his death turned into "one of the most intense and complex contests in history," and Romm charts all the reversals and alliances with the consummate skill of a great detective.
Speaking of detectives, Michael Dirda sheds light not on a lost empire or distant historical figure, but on Arthur Conan Doyle in his graceful meditation "On Conan Doyle" (Princeton University Press). Of course you know Conan Doyle wrote more than just the Sherlock Holmes tales, but did you know, Dirda points out, that "his bibliography runs to over 700 pages"?
If this whets your appetite for non-Sherlockian fare, try Conan Doyle's "The Narrative of John Smith: His Unpublished First Novel" (British Library). The gout- and rheumatism-afflicted Smith is ordered, by his doctor, to lie on his sofa for a week. The result is Smith's long, interesting (and incomplete) meditation on a variety of subjects. Written in 1883, the narrative was Conan Doyle's first attempt at something longer than a story and an early effort at creating an omni-curious character later fully realized in his star detective.
Finally, in the shedding new light department, Yale University Press presents "The Letters of T.S. Eliot" in two volumes, spanning 1898 to 1925. Eliot lived until 1965, but the years covered here — enhanced by the discovery of 200 additional letters — cover his arrival in London, meeting Ezra Pound, the writing of the "Prufrock" volume and "The Waste Land." It's a wealth of material that shows readers the poet who frequently hid behind an enigmatic expression critics call his Gioconda smile.