Monday, February 22, 2010

In Praise Of Bits And Pieces


I have always been a great fan of bits. Break something up into a couple of dozen pieces and it always seems much more palatable to me. When Tolstoy started writing War and Peace, he published weekly chunks in a popular magazine (Dickens used the same approach with most of his novels), and this has always seemed to be a useful approach to literature. Many of my blogging friends use the same approach with their stories, and blogging itself appeals to me because of its' bitty nature. And one area where I find a bitty approach to be a particularly valuable one is with history. 

Recently the BBC started a major collaborative project with the British Museum called "A History Of The World In 100 Objects". The series is nothing short of superb, but - confined to the unfashionable radio as it is - it has not received either the publicity or the acclaim it deserves. The idea is quite simple : get someone to select 100 objects from the collection of the British Museum that, in one way or another, reflect the history of the world and then spend 15 minutes each day talking about them. With such a brief, and with episodes with titles like "Jade Axe" and "King Den's Sandal Label" you would be excused for thinking the series might be as dry as a Saharan water-meadow. But it is not : it is a luscious, informative, entertaining feast. This is partly due to the skills of the main presenter, Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum. It is partly due to the way facts about historical objects are cleverly woven into insights into the contemporary world by guest contributors - whether it be the timeless tragedy of refugees or the way clothes represent deep social and economic trends. And it is partly due to the website which accompanies the project which allows you to see the objects in great detail. But, for me, it is mainly due to those daily 15 minute bite-size pieces.

Object 26 : Oxus Chariot Model 600 BC, Central Asia

So far the series is about a quarter of the way through, but the episodes that have already been broadcast are still available to replay on the BBC website, For listeners on the move you can even download the episodes as podcasts and take them with you on your mp3 players and i pods as you walk your dogs or jog your jogs. Museums are normally thought of as being treasure houses, but, in this case, the treasure is the radio series and its wonderfully bitty approach to history.

20 comments:

  1. Alan,
    Thanks for the info on the radio series. Things of this nature are truly a compact source to wet or satisfy our historical appetite. I must check this out online. LadyCat and I have not yet moved into ipods, etc. However, we too will eventually find what we at one point thought not needed has turned into a necessity such as ipods. This reminds me of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion radio bit on literature trieva. Have a great day! :) The Bach

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  2. What a terrific idea. Kudos to the BBC! 100 Objects sounds right up my little alley, in fact, it's in the same frame of thought as my Magpie Tales, as far as featuring historical objects. Only mine are a bit less notable!

    Going to check out the link...

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  3. I was all excited there for a moment, thinking it was a new television series (we loved "Buildings That Shaped Britain"). I fear radio would not hold us captive, but then we've never tried it much. I'll check out the website, Alan. It does certainly intrigue me. (We don't have an ipod—I see I'm not the only one. Phew!)

    Kat

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  4. WHOA! just took an extended peek at the site...ta much for bringing this t our attention, Alan :)

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  5. I would have loved to read Tolstoy or Dickens in the bit-by-bit fashion of their time. Better still, Sherlock Holmes would have been fantastic.

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  6. I do so love history taught in a physical object / art way. (this is on radio?) With history there is art history and the visual regognition is invaluable. Sort of how some gear-heads can look at a hubcap and give you the type and year of a car! - Great post, Alan, thanks! -J

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  7. Obviously Mr. MacGregor has the talent of making history come alive! Kinda reminds me of history teachers...they can make it dull and boring by having students memorize dates and names, or they can make it wonderful just by the way they present it!

    Thanks for the link...sounds great!

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  8. My iTouch has put me in touch with this and a number of other programmes that I would not hear when broadcast. Instead I subscribe and get them donwloaded, that way I don't miss any.

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  9. fantastic.

    I have been a great fan of bits and pieces forever too! natural tendency of quilters, ha ha.

    the bbc has launched a wonderful project. thanks for the head's up.

    the title of it's project reminds me of a book I think you'd love.... if I haven't already alerted you to it, called history of the world in six glasses by tom standage. of course the first drink in the history of the world is beer!

    cheers. again thanks!!

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  10. Sweet. Will definitely check it out.

    prerst: noun: a feeling of anxiety of having done something before

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  11. Was it Woody Allen who said: "I did a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It's about Russia."
    So glad you can enjoy the radio, Alan - sadly that is denied to me as my hearing aids can't deal with it. But I saw the series advertised and it looks great.

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  12. Anonymous6:51 PM

    @jennyfreckles: You can read the written transcript of each episode on the BBC's website. It's a little hidden: click on "See object" in the Programmes section http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/programme and there's a link "Read the transcript" on the left-hand side. Jay

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  13. The BBC are providing us with a bit of a history-fest at the moment. Not just "A History Of The World In 100 Objects", but also David Dimbleby's 'Seven Ages of Britain'. Somehow takes the sting out of paying the licence fee.

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  14. Hi Alan, When I first saw the title of your blog I thought you were writing about my Etsy shop-"Bits And Pieces, Etc." Somehow I couldn't imagine you visiting the shop full of doilies and old linens let alone writing about it, although it would have been wonderful- but a little boring for your readers. Your blog was a lot more interesting and I'm going to go to the BBC right now and check out that program.

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  15. Yes, we've been listening to this. Such a great idea. I think they should do one next called 'A Woman's Handbag in 100 objects'. I'd be a good candidate for that one.

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  16. That does sound intriguing! Thanks for the tip!

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  17. I just finished reading this piece and went to the link and read what was there as well.

    I still think the idea the BBC came up with makes a lot of sense.

    I really cherish most of the BBC programs we get to see over here on television. I don't mean the funny ones but I liked them as well. I did think Benny Hill was the greatest thing since sweet onions and watched him and was sad when he died. I still miss that guy.

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  18. alan, that project sounds amazing..will look it up. i like bits too...a little here, a little there...

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  19. Thanks so much for bringing this to my attention. I will definitely check it out - sounds fascinating!

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  20. As you've probably seen on my blog -- I mention it now and then -- I have some of the original magazines Dickens serialized his stories in, and it's so cool to think of being forced to read stories like "Great Expectations" one chapter at a time.

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