Antanas Sileika recommends a unique book about some of history's biggest names

The Next Chapter columnist Antanas Sileika reviews Margaret MacMillan's latest book.
Columnist Antanas Sileika says Margaret MacMillan's latest book is a unique and fascinating way of looking at the importance of historical figures. (House of Anansi/Irmantas Geliunas)

With her breakout hit Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, Margaret MacMillan established her reputation as a respected scholar who could write literary and engaging books for a wide audience. Her latest work, History's People: Personalities and the Past, is a series of profiles and biographies of historical figures who stand out for her. The Next Chapter columnist Antanas Sileika joined Shelagh Rogers in Toronto to discuss the book.

ON A UNIQUE WAY OF ORGANIZING HISTORY

MacMillan did a very interesting thing with this book, something I haven't seen recently. She chose certain qualities, and then listed characters beneath them. Leadership is one of the qualities, people with hubris, people with curiosity. I found this so strange — it reminded me of my childhood where you'd read about the lives of the saints, and you'd have the saints who exemplified charity or courage, for example. You don't see this that much outside the world of business books, and in a way this is a bit like a business book.

ON CONSIDERING HISTORY IN A NEW LIGHT

The thing that I find interesting is she doesn't judge the same way most of us do. The past is a terrible place, and if you have a naïve view of things, we attack the past because it doesn't have the same sensibilities as we have now. And she does somewhat the opposite — she cautions us to set aside our contemporary sensibilities and understand the world in which these people operated, and then she picks out people who have been written about a lot, but she comes at them in a new way, as if she's reaffirming the importance of individuals in the great span of history.

ON THE DANGER OF IMPOSING CONTEMPORARY MORALS ON THE PAST

It's a struggle — you can't help but say, well, the founding fathers of the United States held slaves and they wrote a lot about freedom, how is that even possible? But the danger of having a contemporary view is that if you look at it that way, the past is all trash. We, the contemporaries, are virtuous, and we look back with disdain upon the past and we in turn will be looked upon with disdain. Instead, we can search in the past, and see how we got where we are. 

Antanas Sileika's comments have been edited and condensed.