Why Historical Novels are Important

How do we know what we know about history? Careful accounts and discoveries have made the amount of information we know on our backgrounds larger and more finite. Historical novels, whether fictional or realistic, help us out even more by describing what life was like back then and how people dressed, acted, and behaved. Without them, we would lose the important part of history that makes us human. Historical books (and not just textbooks) teach us things that we actually wouldn’t have learned from reading a textbook. However, this post may be a little biased since my favorite genre of books is historical fiction. Historical novels can be based in fact or fiction. The fact comes from things that actually happened and the fiction is filler that the author thinks will make an entertaining story. Movies can be this way, too; when it is ‘based on a true story’, it is just that, some filler has been added to make the story flow better or look different, but most usually coincide to the actual events that happened. Take Titanic and Gone With the Wind for example: one about a tragic ship accident and the other based during the time of the American Civil War, with Sherman’s March to the sea being mentioned. However, there was most likely no one named Jack Dawson and Rose Dewitt Bukater on the Titanic, and if Scarlett O’Hara was actually real, she is a long-forgotten Southern belle. Whatever the case, historical fiction is exciting to me because I find history itself so interesting. Learning how people lived over one hundred years ago is something I find so fascinating and I totally wish the Doctor and the Tardis were real. So whenever they invent time travel, sign me up. I want to learn about these distant times authors write about and live them.

The Jungle

If it weren’t for this book, maybe none of us would be alive today, but that could be an over exaggeration. The Jungle brings to light the horrors of meat  packing plants in the 1920s and actually brought about reforms in the way our food is handled and processed. Upton Sinclair’s novel takes place in the fiction city called Packingtown, a city that closely resembles Chicago in the same time era. It follows a newly immigrated Lithuanian family and their trials in America, a strange and foreign land. Jurgis is the head of the family and he is engaged to Ona. Her cousin, Marija and stepmother Elzbieta live with them along with a few other family members. They live in a tenement in the beginning of the novel and purchase their own house later, however realizing that they were scammed when it came to making payments on it. The family struggles more but Jurgis gets a job in a meat packing plant and the family is a little better off as the older ones get jobs as well. However, Ona admits to being sexually harassed at her workplace and Jurgis confronts the boss who was making the advances, knocking him out cold and landing him in prison. The family is unaware of Jurgis being locked up and have to find ways to make more money without him, Marija resulting to prostitution to make ends meet. Jurgis gets out of prison and realizes Ona is about to have a second child, but dies while in labor because the family couldn’t scrounge up enough money to find a sufficient doctor to save her, and their first child, Antanas, drowns in the street. Jurgis is defeated and leaves the family and beings to wander the country looking for work, falling deeper into alcoholism. In the end, he comes back to his family and becomes a socialist after seeing a rally (this is ironic because in my version of the book, there is an introduction by the author that praises socialism and you can tell he’s pretty biased). The Jungle was an interesting read, probably because it’s a historical novel, but also because it was based on fact. Sinclair was a muckraker and he saw firsthand how terrible the conditions were in factories that were processing food. It shows how our country fixed a problem in society and how to not revert back to that again.

Russia

Let’s take the time to talk about the biggest country in the world. This country covers basically half of Asia (though not much of Europe) who’s northern extremities are basically uninhabited because of how cold it is. The reason this topic relates to books is that I read one recently for an AP Environmental Science project about Chernobyl (I know it’s in Ukraine but Russia was still involved) which I find really interesting. Russia is one B.A. country. From their impossible to pronounce names to practically drinking alcoholic fire, the Russians are pretty topnotch. Regarding their tough names in literature, Doctor Zhivago has characters with names that you have to skim over and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander I. Solzhnitsky kind of explains itself. One time I tried to teach myself how to speak Russian by reading a book, which proved to be difficult because all I remember how to say is спасибо (thank you) and красивый (beautiful) but maybe I will pick it back up over the summer. It’s a symbol-based language, like Chinese and Thai, which I find more difficult to associate to words than Spanish or English. Russia also has a pretty rad history: from what I remember, Peter the Great, the leader of Russia probably before the Middle Ages, went on a great tour of Europe to see refined society and the latest trends that he could bring back to improve his country. He ended up making all the men wear billowy pants and cut off their beards. They  found the latter offensive because they believed Jesus had a beard and this made the connection to God for them closer. In more recent years, Russian relations with the United States have been rocky, with the Cold War to contain communism and nuclear missile crisis and whatnot. However, after the Berlin wall was knocked down a little over a decade ago,  Russia and the US became somewhat friendly. Lately, tensions have been yet again rising due to Russian interference with the political turmoil in Ukraine, making people wonder how this will play out in the global scene. So there you have it, a rambling post about Russia all stemming from a book about an exploding power plant in Ukraine. But if you’ve put up with me for this long, I’m sure you’re used to it by now.

Allusions

You know when you’re watching your favorite show or listening to the newest song on the radio, and something is said that we understand, but only would’ve been understood if we had read a book or learned something in class? That may be a long description but there is one word that sums this phenomena up- allusion. Dictionary.com defines it as “a passing or casual reference; an incidental mention of something, either directly or by implication” or “the act or practice of making a casual or indirect reference to something.” Allusions make us feel educated and accomplished. For example, in a song by country artist Luke Bryan called ‘That’s My Kinda Night’, he mentions Conway and T-Paine. Now, if you have never heard of these artists or their music, you wouldn’t understand their purpose in the song. Bryan uses allusion in his song to make it show more of his personality and interests, this example showing his preference in music when taking a girl out. Sometimes you need to understand an allusion to understand what is going on, you need the context of it to get the rest. Allusions are used to express the artist or make them more understandable. When we understand allusions, it shows that we are educated and are capable of learning. For example, I took AP world history last year and now I understand so much more about the world and the history behind it. I can listen to songs and read books and get what’s going on. This may be pushing the boundaries of allusion but it is still helpful to the reader or listener. So, basically, stay in school if you want to understand and be able to comprehend songs, books, and even movies. You are missing out until you strive to unlock allusions.

Pen Names

Authors throughout time have used pen names to keep their identity a secret or to make the reader’s focus more on the book and less on the person writing it. For example, Mark Twain, a well-known American writer, was born Samuel Clemens. He changed his name after working on a steamboat along the Mississippi River in Missouri. He actually gets the name ‘Mark Twain’ from a type of measurement that was used on the boats called a ‘twain’, which people would mark, hence his new name. His life on the river was very important to him and this is evident through his name change. Another reason writers change their names is because they are actually women looking to make it in the literary world. George Eliot, the author of Middlemarch, was actually Mary Ann Evans, born in England during the 1800s, who wanted people to take her work seriously. During that time, men had all the power and authority so it was only logical to take the name of a man. J.K. Rowling, the famous author of the Harry Potter series used the initial of her name Joanne, and made up the ‘K’ as she did not have a middle name. This was all done because she believed boys at the time wouldn’t want to read a book about magic written by a woman. Authors also use pen names to heighten the story they are telling and to make it more believable. I Am Number Four, a science-fiction novel about aliens (that description doesn’t do it justice, it is actually a very intriguing story) is written by Pittacus Lore. In the story, Lore is the ruler of the place where the aliens originate, Lorien. James Frey and Jobie Hughes are the actual authors, but props to them for incorporating more of the book to be apart of the reader’s imagination and the story overall. I also used to read a book as a child called The Name of This Book is Secret, written by Pseudonymous Bosch. The actual author of the series is still disputed. Dictionary.com defines ‘pseudonymous’ as “bearing a false or fictitious name.” Relates pretty well, doesn’t it? ‘Bosch’ may come from the artist Hieronymous Bosch, who is actually one of my favorites. Overall, authors use pen names for all sorts of reasons and some of those reasons can be quite interesting once you get to researching them.

Handwriting

Handwriting is one of those things that makes a person completely unique. Everyone’s is different and special. However, in the age of technology, we could be losing aspects of ourselves that define who we are. Handwriting has historically been a sign of gender, patience, and even occupation. Boys are notorious for having illegible handwriting, whereas girls are known for perfect penmanship (but not all of us put hearts instead of dots on our “i’s”). However, some people cross these boundaries, because I have seen some guys have beautiful, fully readable handwriting. If you have the time, your handwriting will be nice and neat; however, if you are rushed, the words are all slurred together and hard to read. Doctors are big names when it comes to illegible writing: everyone has made a joke to their friend with the bad handwriting that they should look into the medical field. Along with that note, signatures are unique and important and there are many ways to make it your own, especially through cursive. I remember when we were learning cursive in third grade and we were told that that’s all we would use during high school (which ended up being a total lie). When writing essays, handwriting can make or break your grade. If the teacher can’t read it, they probably won’t give you an A+, even if it is what you deserve. For some reason, every year I like to switch up the way I write my letters. In previous years I would write an “a” how it looks when typed, but now I write it without the top hook. My “g” never looked how it was typed (I don’t think anyone does that) and now the way it looks reminds me of graffiti. The way I write makes my handwriting exclusive, something I can call all my own. With the introduction of computers and cell phones, we have a universal, electronic handwriting. Sure, you can choose different, snazzy fonts that add character, but nothing like handwriting on notebook paper does. I fear that someday, future generations will only use keyboards to write, losing the ability to pick up a pencil and develop a handwriting that makes them individual from the rest. To me, this will be a sad day. I know people that can no longer read cursive, when will come the day where they can’t read handwriting because they are used to text on a computer screen? Personally, I think more essays should be written rather than typed. It adds character and incorporates the personality of the author. You can tell a lot about a person by their handwriting, and hopefully we won’t reach a time where we can’t write anymore.

Celebrity Autobiographies

This is a topic I feel that we as a society need to address: why does every celebrity think they need to write an autobiography about their childhood and their rise to fame? Like, I know you’re famous and you must have a fan-base if you are taking the time to write a book about your life, but sometimes it’s just not necessary. Half of the people that write them are ones I’ve never even heard of. It’s like it’s trendy to do among the celebrities or something. Most of the autobiographies being written now are either by dubbing actors and actresses who are barely out of high school or old ones that no one remembers or cares about anymore. Examples are Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, and Vanilla Ice. These people are still very young and have a lot of life ahead of them so for them to write a memoir when they did is kind of ridiculous. Also, some celebrities write autobiographical sequels, as if their life story was too much to fit in one book. Maybe it is a marketing gimmick so they can make more money, not like they need to. Whatever the case, I’m sure there are celebrity autobiographies that would be better to read. People who have lived a long time and are well-known figures in society or have done good things, people like Michael J. Fox or Malala Yousafzai. Others like Tina Fey and Oprah Winfrey would probably be pretty interesting as well. There are also well known classic writers that have written autobiographies like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf. These are the autobiographies would should be reading and supporting. I think we will continue to see autobiographies written by undeserving famous people but we will probably continue to read them. Our society is centered around fame and it’s not something we can easily give up.

"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested."

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