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.
Recently for an AP Lang project (I’m starting to notice that all the reading I’m doing lately is usually because it’s required and that makes me really sad) I went to the library to look for a nonfiction book that I could possibly write an essay on. Being really into history, I saw a book called A Short History of Nearly Everything and I was instantly intrigued. The book is by Bill Bryson and it is literally what the title says it’s about. I could end this blog post here, but it has to be a minimum of three hundred words so I’ll continue. Honestly, I don’t normally just pick up books because they look or sound interesting so that fact that this book somehow did that to me is amazing. I’ve only read the first few chapters but what I have read is really just awesome and I can tell the rest of the book is going to be as well. It begins with the beginning-the creation of the universe and moves on to talk about stars and supernovae and the like. From just skimming through the book, I can see that he talks about humans and historical events. It’s basically like a mini textbook that it written for people to actually absorb and understand, because let’s be honest, who actually understands textbooks completely? I am just all-around excited to read more of this book, and that was definitely nerdy but I think we’ve established that already. Also in AP Lang we are doing the last author study of the year and Bill Bryson was on the list of options but unfortunately I did not get him because the selection for authors could be comparable to the hunger games. I ended up with my second choice, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Have you read anything by either Bill Bryson or Ta-Nehisi Coates? If so, what did you think?
*UPDATE*: Today I asked if I could possibly be switched to Bill Bryson for the author study, and it happened! I might add some Ta-Nehisi Coates to my list and read his works eventually. I’m excited to read Bryson (for a reason). Just kidding, you shouldn’t need a reason to read.
Recently I had to read some nonfiction books by Annie Dillard for an author study and I chose The Writing Life and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (if I have time I will also read For the Time Being). I finished the former novel recently and it really made me think differently on how writers do their job. She opens up about her way of writing, even going so far as to say how she hates to write, not something you would expect from a renowned author. The writing process is delved into in this book, where Dillard talks about how “it takes years to write a book” and “the written word is week”. Her obvious experience with writing shows in the book and this makes her credibility already established. There are some great quotes to take away from in this book. For example, Dillard speaks about writing: “Write as if you were dying- at the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case, what would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?” Dillard speaks volumes about the ethereal nature of writing. Her writing itself is so different from things I have read before, probably because I don’t really go out of my way to read nonfiction. She jumps- more like glides- into random topics in the course of the text which is broken up into small sections throughout the chapter. She does focus on nature quite a bit, however. The last few chapters of The Writing Life tell the story of Dillard’s presumed friend who was a pilot, and how that friendship affected her. This nonfiction book will really help with my author study goals to analyze her writing (I mean, she has practically given me a cheat sheet in book form) and deduce her style.
In one of my AP classes we have to do an author study on a person who wrote influential and renowned essays during a certain time period. I chose Oscar Wilde, meaning I have to read his works of nonfiction and in two weeks, become a semi-expert of his style and tone. The only problem with this project is that my teacher’s copy of all of his essays in one book was stolen and our school library only has A Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest. I picked the latter to read first because it was the only book by Oscar Wilde in the nonfiction section (sorry library, a play isn’t nonfiction) and the novel would take too long to read for the amount of time (and the mountain of homework) that I have. The Importance of Being Earnest is only 60 pages long, but it packs in a comical and confusing tale about friendship and marriage. In it’s short three acts, you learn the story of John ‘Jack’ Worthing, and his friend Algernon Moncrieff. Jack has visited his friend’s house with the intention of proposing to Gwendolen Fairfax, Algernon’s cousin. At the same time, Algernon is in love with Jack’s adopted father’s granddaughter, who he now takes care of. She resides in Jack’s country home, where he goes by the name of Jack (using the name Ernest in the city), saying he has a younger brother named Ernest in London. Jack has never known his birth parents, he was found in a handbag on a train by his now adopted father. This is one of the factors that Lady Bracknell takes into consideration when she denies consent for Jack to marry her daughter Gwendolen. Algernon ends up going to Jack’s country home unannounced, professing his love for Cecily, Jack’s ward. He has also taken up the name Ernest, so Cecily thinks it is her ‘uncle’s’ black sheep brother. Gwendolen visits and chats with Cecily and they both find out the men they are engaged to go by the name of Ernest, which makes them think they are engaged to the same man. Jack arrives in mourning clothes, saying his brother Ernest has died. Algernon also shows up and the women question the two men. They get their stories straightened out and the situation is calmed. The next day, Jack finds out some things about his past: Lady Bracknell reveals that he and Algernon are brothers and Jack was named after his father, but she can’t recall the name. Jack looks in the Army Lists of the time his father was enlisted, discovering his name was John Ernest. This makes him happy because he was named after his father. In the end, the couples are with their rightful significant others and the whole ordeal is solved, and Jack has learned a lesson on the importance of being earnest.
If I were to compare this to another work of literature out there, it would have to be Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. In this particular play, the relationships are hard to keep track of and you really have to pay attention to who is playing who and what is going on. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Jack and Algernon are in a way telling some white lies about who they really are. This ties into the end where Jack actually learns the truth about who he is saying, “Gwendolen, it’s a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.” This was a quote that I really had to stop and think about. To tell the truth without even knowing it to me would just be a correct assumption, but I’d like to hear some other input on this particular quote. To be earnest is to be serious in intention, purpose, or effort. At the very end of the play, Jack realizes the vital importance of being earnest in everything he does, whether it be maintaining his identity, proposing to the woman he loves, or telling the truth, even if he doesn’t know it yet.