Why (Historical) Fiction matters.

There’s a tendency for those who read academic work all day to avoid doing this in their spare time. The stuff is interesting, sure, but it’s not exactly what you want to be spending your time doing when aiming to rest and recuperate after having already done that same thing for the entire day. I have countless books on my shelf, academic as well as a good number of more ‘popular’ non-fiction books (which are definitely easier to read), which I’ve dipped into but can’t sit down for hours straight in evenings and weekends and get through. If I didn’t spend all of my days during the week reading interesting yet dense and mentally straining books in history and politics, I doubt I would have this issue. But I do, and I would bet that I’m not alone

Most of us, as students, want to expand our knowledge and become more well-read – the idea of just reading more academic books is not the only solution (or lack thereof) available for this end. To supplement what we are learning in our degrees in politics and whatever else, and to gain, for example, interesting and useful historical insights, we can read fiction. Particularly, as is the focus of this article, we can read historical fiction. Let me give you an example.

Fall of Giants, Winter of the World and Edge of Eternity are the three books that make up Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy, and for me, provide a perfect example of why historical fiction as a genre is so good. I very nearly wrote a recommendation of it for the Forge Press monthly book club series but chose another; it is nice to be able to sing its praises elsewhere. The books boast a whole host of great characters who interact and come together in unexpected and gratifying ways, driving forward a storyline that focuses, throughout the three books, on five or so families who traverse the events of the 20th century. The characters and story make these books extremely hard to put down. Therefore, the historical settings and events, from the shattering of the hopes of peace in 1914 to the erection of the Berlin wall in 1961, from the Russian Revolutions of 1917 to the battlefields of both world wars, to the fall of the aforementioned wall in 1989, are absorbed by the reader in a very easy way. These are key events across the 20th century, and there is diversity within country, class and political perspective in terms of whichever character we may be following at any certain point. The only complaint in this regard is that these perspectives seem to focus entirely on the European and Anglo-American experiences of the 20th century, not featuring, as far as I can remember, characters from the rest of the world at all. Follett in this regard may be forgiven in that the books are already somewhat long – I think all three together have a total of about 3000 pages, and as a Brit it is natural to write about countries that he is more familiar with. Despite their length though, these books are no chore to read; they are an enjoyable and engaging way to absorb useful historical information.

The Century Trilogy is a good example for me in that it covers a historical period that I find interesting, and one that is relevant specifically for politics students. There are of course countless other examples of historical fiction that I could have used. C. J. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid for example, which is set in Francoist Spain. Sansom has also written the Shardlake series, set in Tudor England, with the first book starting, I believe, in the midst of the dissolution of the monasteries; had I read this before my A-Level History exam, I may have not done quite so badly. Another book by Follett, The Pillars of the Earth, is a popular one, spawning a TV series in 2010 which I must say is very good. Finally, a trilogy that provides the basis for all of my knowledge on the Crusades and the Knights Templar, a really interesting historical period, is the Brethren Trilogy by Robyn Young; the only reason I don’t elevate this trilogy to the focus of this article alongside Follett is that the 20th century is undoubtedly more politically relevant than the 11th.

The point that The Century Trilogy and others demonstrate is that we can get a good idea of the main happenings of, say, the 20th century in an easy, enjoyable, personal, and bottom-up way. The main characters weren’t real people, but they were experiencing what real people at the time would have experienced. For politics students, historical insights are key, particularly those from the 20th century in their lessons for the politics of today. Such, instead of trying to get through a textbook or an academic history of the 20th century, why not try a historical fiction like Follett’s? Citing novels in essays is not something I would recommend, of course, but for general information or an introduction to a historical period they can be very useful.

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