Among the many benefits of reading novels is often learning new things while (hopefully) enjoying a great story.
For instance, I just read the Dick Francis crime novel Break In, and, along with being impressed with the thrilling plot and skilled character depictions, received an education about steeplechase horse racing. (It certainly didn’t hurt that Francis was a former steeplechase jockey himself.) In addition, there was plenty of information about the intricacies of 1980s-era TV production and editing.
I also learned a lot about coal mining — the 19th-century French version, at least — in a more literary novel: Emile Zola’s riveting Germinal (see the image atop this blog post). In fact, a number of Zola’s novels have a subject theme: The Masterpiece (art), The Drinking Den (alcoholism), The Beast in Man (trains), The Ladies’ Delight (department stores), Nana (prostitution), etc.
Another 19th-century classic, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, includes sometimes tedious passages on whales and whaling amid the dramatic doings of Ahab, Ishmael, Queequeg, and company. But those passages are quite an education.
When I think about World War II, my mind usually focuses on how it affected the aggressor countries Germany and Japan as well as Allied countries such as the U.S., England, France, and Russia. But reading Elsa Morante’s compelling novel History gave me a real sense of how things played out in Italy, another aggressor country back then.
Novels such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon and Charles Bukowski’s Hollywood provide readers with a strong sense of the glamour and the considerable dark side of the movie business in two different eras.
Getting back to sports, I learned a lot about the rules of pre-modern baseball in Darryl Brock’s immensely entertaining time-travel novel If I Never Get Back — which places its 20th-century protagonist in 1869.
Which novels have given you an education about various topics?
(It’s Oscar night, so here’s an old post of mine on movies and literature!)
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which focuses again on overdevelopment and historical desecration in my town — is here.