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You and your kids are learning a much larger history than I did as a child. "History" was once considered to consist exclusively of written records. The idea was that we could only know what happened in the past from the observations of someone who saw the past happen, and the only way to know that was if the observer wrote down what he knew. Thus, history was considered to start with Egypt, which until a few decades ago was thought to have the first writing. It's now known that Mesopotamia and Elam had writing even before Egypt, but either way, writing was only a little over 5,000 years old, and thus history started a little over 5,000 years ago. Our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, was known to be somewhere between 50 and 300 thousand years old, and genus Homo millions of years old, but the vast majority of that time was considered to be outside of history, consigned to the realm of archaeology and paleontology. That sharp line between history and archaeology,... read more

Miguel de Cervantes has had more influence on modern Spanish than any other writer. Even people who know no Spanish and never heard of Cervantes will sometimes talk about "tilting at windmills," meaning to try to do something impossible and fail spectacularly. The phrase comes from Cervantes's famous novel Don Quixote, where the crazy main character thinks he is a knight-errant and attacks a windmill, believing it to be an evil giant. The English language also built the word "quixotic" from that novel, an adjective for a person who perseveres in a noble but futile cause. Cervantes was to the Spanish language what Shakespeare was to English. That is, Cervantes's writing is frequently cited as the dividing line between medieval Spanish and modern Spanish, just as Shakespeare represents the transition from Middle English to modern English. But it is easy to exaggerate Cervantes's similarity to Shakespeare. Shakespeare was a playwright and a poet, while... read more

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