It’s thirty years ago but it seems like yesterday.
My professor David Hollinger was demanding that I put in real effort to get a high grade in my upper-level history seminar, and I’d been trying to take that to heart. I was putting in serious hours at the library, looking over the New York Times dating back to the early years of the 20th century, maybe even earlier. And I made a connection. I started to realize that I was reading the same article over and over again. As much as the world had changed, the Times wasn’t covering an election in El Salvador in the 1980s all that much differently from elections that had taken place there decades before, or from elections in many other countries, for that matter.
For all the problem sets I’d done in physics before becoming a history major, for all the books I’d read for my history classes, this discovery was my own. It revealed a pattern. It was a prism, a lens that I could use to view the world. I could start to read the newspaper—read everything!—in a new and better way.
History does that.
Today I’m a literary agent. When I sit across the table from a publisher negotiating a contract, we’re on a field of battle. I need to know my math, know how big a pie the publisher and my writer have to share. I need to know the intricacies of a publishing contract. I need to know about publishing. But none of what I know matters if I can’t also draw connections for my clients. The client has to understand why, has to understand their place in the business, their role as an author in a long line of authors. And it’s not enough to know about publishing if I don’t understand the publishers I’m talking to. I need to use the skills I was pushed to learn thirty years ago by David Hollinger and my other history professors at the University of Michigan.
When I give to the History Department today, I feel like I’m passing down to others the gifts I received from being challenged and educated by my professors thirty years ago. The gifts of reason, of understanding, of persuasion.
Joshua Bilmes earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Michigan in 1985. He founded JABberwocky Literacy Agency in 1994.