Derek Anderson has worked at Marin Academy for 33 amazing years, first starting out as a college counselor, then working in administration, and eventually becoming the Library Director and Archivist. Throughout his years at MA he has also been a member of the history department, teaching US History, European History, and World History. Since 2012 Derek has worked tirelessly on writing his very first book. Former MA Director of Alumni Relations, Rebecca Abbey, caught up with Derek to get the story behind this new book, Improbable Voices: A History of the World Since 1450 Seen From 26 Unusual Perspectives.
Congratulations on completing your book, Improbable Voices: A History of the World Since 1450 Seen From 26 Unusual Perspectives. When did you decide you wanted to write a book, and how long has it taken you to complete it?
I began thinking about this project on a sleepless night in March 2012. At the time, I was teaching World History and used a book published in conjunction with the British Museum: The History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor. As I lay in bed, I got to thinking about other ways the history of the world might be told, and people were an obvious choice. But how many people? And which people? My mind began to churn, and I eventually came up with the idea of 26 people, one person for each letter of the English alphabet.
What drew you to the idea of writing about history in this way?
There have been so many books written about famous people and famous events. And there have been many books written on very specific historical topics. I wanted to do something different. The book’s structure is probably the most original idea I’ve ever had, and putting the puzzle together was fascinating. It quickly became something I had to honor.
How did you select the 26 people and perspectives? Did you seek to find them chronologically or did you find them alphabetically?
Both actually. I really wanted to have a balanced chronological narrative, and I wanted to fit that narrative into the constraint of the alphabet. Many historians more qualified than I could write a world history from a biographical perspective, but could it be done maintaining the A to Z format? What I ended up doing is having five figures for each century. That took me to 25 figures and left me with one more for the 21st century. And that felt right since so much of this century’s story has yet to be written.
Do you have any favorites among the 26?
All of the characters have their strengths and weaknesses, but one figure I do like was a 17th century doctor named Gijsbert Heeck. He worked for the Dutch East India Company and kept a journal of his voyage to South Africa, Indonesia, and Thailand in the mid-1650s. Not only did Heeck’s care mean that the ship’s crew enjoyed a higher-than-normal survival rate, but his journal is one of the great travel narratives of that era. Yes, he has plenty of prejudices, but he also has an eye for detail, and he makes the effort to understand that which is utterly unfamiliar to him. He doesn’t know, for example, what Buddhism is, but he tries to describe Thai temples and what makes them distinctive from other religious buildings in Asia. At points, he almost speaks with a sense of awe. Perhaps because I didn’t understand Buddhism the first time I went to Thailand and yet tried to describe what I saw in a journal, I feel as if I understand Heeck in a special way. I also like the chapter because of the way I am able to interweave Heeck’s life with a discussion of Holland’s Golden Age, the paintings of Rembrandt and Vermeer, mercantilism, trade, and Jewish life in Amsterdam.
You’ve dedicated this book in part to your students. Is there something you hope your students take away from your classes? What about something that your readers might understand better through your book?
Perhaps my favorite quote about history comes from 20th century historian Peter Geyl: “To expect from history those final conclusions which may perhaps be obtained in other disciplines is in my opinion to misunderstand its nature. History is indeed an argument without end.” The debt I have to my students (as well as to my own teachers) is actually quite similar: it is only by exploring the complexity of the past with them that I have grown. We don’t always agree with one another, and we rarely reach a final conclusion, but it is by exchanging ideas and by exploring our curiosity together that we have both learned. The conversation with my students won’t really ever end, but it is in the process of on-going discovery with them that I find satisfaction. I hope that Improbable Voices will allow others to share in this dialogue and discover an unfamiliar past.