Sunday, November 23, 2008

What are you reading?

I have a book problem. I never met a bookstore, library, or book club I didn’t like. I have stacks of unread books and magazines around the house, most of which are nonfiction, most of that, history. I'll get around to them all one day. Once in a while I pick up a work of fiction. As you might imagine, it's almost always historical fiction. The more accurate the better; I hate catching an author with a historical inaccuracy. It turns me off for the rest of the book. From then on I can’t trust any historical “facts” presented in the story. After that, it’s just brain candy. Admittedly, fiction is my guilty pleasure just the same. But I don’t feel like I’m learning anything.

I’ll give you a couple of examples. I picked up the book Faded Coat of Blue by Owen Parry in a used book store. It is actually part of a detective series set within the backdrop of the Civil War. I enjoyed the character of the heroic sleuth, Able Jones, who was a Welsh immigrant making his home in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Since I was living in that area of the country at the time, I saw that the author was dead on historically accurate with the history of the coal mining region of Pennsylvania. I really enjoyed the book, but I was upset when the author had the main character secretly meet President Lincoln, who asks him to work for him as a secret agent. Thus the stage is set for a detective series within the Civil War. Okay, so I read a few more books in the Able Jones series. It's a fun read, but as I said: brain candy.

One of the books that really turned me on to military history was The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. I read the book the first time as an assignment for a military history class when I was in ROTC. Since then I’ve read the book three more times and I must have watched the movie version, Gettysburg, at least a dozen more. One of the reasons I like the book so much is the attention the author paid to historical accuracy. All of the characters in the novel are historical personalities. The only thing made up in the book is the conversations the characters have with each other. Michael Shaara’s son, Jeff, has taken up the family business. Jeff Shaara writes with the same standard of historical accuracy and now has a long list of titles on Amazon. He has done a prequel and a sequel to the Killer Angels, and done works on the Revolution, the Mexican War, World War I and World War II. I just yesterday finished The Steel Wave, Jeff Shaara’s second volume about WWII. I liked it so much, as I do all of his work, I mailed it to my dad to read. It’s not brain candy, or even brain fast food. Think of it as a healthy brain sandwich.

The bottom line is that I think we can learn a lot from historical fiction, whether by reading a novel, or watching a movie. It doesn’t just have to be about military history. Movies (that are almost always books first) like Seabiscuit and A Beautiful Mind were box office successes AND historically accurate. Or at least these works are historically accurate enough to teach the story while entertaining. These works should not be discounted as a way to learn history. I find history exciting. It's unfortunate that many others don't. History makes for a good story. Why can’t we get people interested in, and excited about, history by presenting it as the drama that it is?

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