Booking Through Thursday: History or Historical Fiction

Here is this week’s Booking Through Thursday:

Given the choice, which do you prefer? Real history? Or historical fiction? (Assume, for the purposes of this discussion that they are equally well-written and engaging.)

What an appropriate question, given that I’m reading Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory, a book that’s part biography, part history, part political analysis, and a fully riveting read. Primarily about Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinals strong safety, who joined the Army after September 11, and who was later killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan, the book also explores the history of conflict in Afghanistan from just before the Soviet invasion to the formation of Al Quaeda to the rise of the Taliban to the moment Tillman was killed. It also explores the events that led up to September 11, as well as the rescue of Jessica Lynch, in which Tillman played a small part, during the early days of the Iraq War.

Now to the question at hand: Overall I’d have to say I prefer history over historical novels, especially when I’m intrigued about a particular historical subject, and especially when the person writing the history is an engaging writer — historian Paul Johnson comes to mind. I’m not particularly fond of history textbooks, even when I was majoring in history in college. When I was majoring in history, I preferred reading novels set in the historical periods I was studying, usually these were classic novels  like For Whom the Bell Tolls or Frankenstein— besides being an early science fiction novel, it is a great glimpse into the Romantic mind — or firsthand documents like the letters of Abelard and Heloise.

And I’ve loved contemporary novels such as Atonement, technically a historical novel, since it’s primarily set in Britain during the war. But, like most historical novels, Atonement uses its historical setting — the movingly vivid retreat from Dunkirk in this instance — as a catalyst to move the story forward more than serving to throw a light on a historic moment or figure.

But, again, if I want to know about an event or idea or even people (I love biographies that put important figures in their historic context) I prefer history.


2 thoughts on “Booking Through Thursday: History or Historical Fiction

  1. I have just finished reading a string of historical novels–Ragtime, The Book of Daniel, Confessions of Nat Turner, Sophie’s Choice–and prefer them to straight history, because they convey the emotional lives of people instead of just events and the Big Picture. I realize that a good history does more than that, but a good historical novel makes a period so real to me.

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