In Certain Books, Learn, Learn, Learn

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 The latest weekly piece — which focuses again on overdevelopment and historical desecration in my town — is here.

72 thoughts on “In Certain Books, Learn, Learn, Learn

  1. I think my preference has always been for novels set in the past and I’ve found them all an insight and an education, be that about Hollywood in the early days–I should ahve Stayed home wa sexcellent about how extras worked, there’s Steinbeck , the Grapes of Wrath–the Depression. I read a book years ago the Heirs of the Kingdom Zoe Oldenbourg about the Crusades and how it all descended into madness for you average person who walked these miles every day, slept in the open at nights, because the book was about these people who left their village in France to go. Anyway, a very interesting topic. I guess even murder mystery books might inform you about that subject. Great post

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nadine Gordimer’s novels always depicted Apartheid in South Africa, I learnt a lot about the regime and brutalities. D. H Lawrence’s “Sons And Lovers” setting is a mining town hence readers gain insight into coal mining and it’s working! Fitzgerald allows readers to reflect and study the glitz and glamour of 1920’s. Tony Morrison’s works brings to surface the bleak reality of racism and oppression. I guess every novel teaches something …

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  3. Howdy, Dave!

    — Which novels have given you an education about various topics? —

    All of them.

    As evidenced by my bachelor’s degree in political science, though, I am especially interested in the authoritative allocation of values in all the times and all the places that are contemporaneous in the mind, so I have been driven to learn about such arcana as the glorious — and inglorious — days of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth* by Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy (“With Fire and Sword,” “The Deluge” and “Fire in the Steppe”), the precise lubricants employed to grease the wheels of corruption in postbellum America by Mark Twain’s and Charles Dudley Warner’s “The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today,” and the voyeuristic zoological practices on Tralfamadore across the space-time continuum by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

    And I have found good lessons even in bad books: Always hire an editor. Always hire a copy editor. Always hire a proofreader. (It takes a village.)

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

    *An elected king: Imagine that!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, J.J.! Well said, drolly said, and (fill in the blank) said. 🙂

      So true — every book teaches us something, even if it’s what’s not to do. And, yes, editors help.

      I appreciate those three authorial examples. “The Gilded Age” is a very good novel. Twain’s portion is obviously funnier and more satirical, but Warner didn’t do too badly, either.

      An elected king — that IS something. I can just picture a campaigning king in Iowa eating a corndog…


  4. I love the realistic novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century, such as The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, Sister Carrie by Dreiser, Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage set in a dentist’s office, George Gissing on New Grub Street. There’s
    something of this also in many of George Orwell’s books. The struggle to survive, I guess.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you! I share your love of several novels of that time, including “The Jungle” and “Sister Carrie.” And, later on, the work of Orwell. Yes, the struggle to survive; it makes for dramatic, heartbreaking reading.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Edward Dahlberg never quite made it into the mainstream of literary renown, though he knew everybody in letters as an ex-pat in Paris in the 1920’s. I can’t say why, because he writes well, except I suspect it might be, at least in part, because he wrote out of his own experience often. And his experience, especially in childhood, was desperate and wild and grubby. His mother was a lady barber in turn-of-the-century Kansas City, and a single mother with no resources save herself, save the dubious mercies of her male clientele. By age six, Edward was resident of an orphanage.

      Many years lie between me and the anthology I read of his accounts of those early days– chiefly the novel “Bottom Dogs”, his first– but his depiction of the mid-American underclass and its surroundings, aspirations and thwarted greed has never left me.

      Nor, have Stephen Crane’s “Maggie of the Streets” and the short stories he wrote about working-class New Yorkers at roughly the same time period.

      If you haven’t read these, you might add them to your list of things to seek out.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Don’t know if she’ll see it, but I’d like to thank Michele for her recent mention of AJ Leibling. I happened on a big fat paperback of his titled “Leibling Abroad”, concerning his various doings in Europe, most of which took place around and during WWII.

    Great stuff! Great style!

    On an unrelated note, Liebling’s on-the-scene account of Paris during the ‘sitzkrieg’ period and the fall of France early in the war should be required reading for all who would more thoroughly appreciate “Suite Francais” by Irene Nemerovsky, and its historical context.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Speaking of old themes, here’s one I believe I have written on previously– but it pertains!

    In Hugh Kenner’s “The Pound Era”, I learned a bit of the method behind James Joyce’s “Ulysses”, which, in turn derived in part from the discoveries of Heinrich Schliemann, the amateur antiquarian despoiler of Attic archeological sites– back before there was a formal discipline of archeology. Schliemann had decided to read Homer as literally as he could, and then set out to unearth artifacts that would prove his reading. And amazingly, found a great many lovely things which he mistook for corroboration. Samuel Butler also did some writing that employed a literal reading of Homer, which preceded, and had some influence on Joyce.

    The idea that, many centuries hence, a reader might be able to recreate mentally the sights, smells and sounds of a bygone time and place proved intriguing to Joyce, enough that he attempted, among his other attempts, to make “Ulysses” a sort of guidebook, catalog and general source for the mental recreation of early 20th century Dublin– detritus not only included, but meticulously listed.

    In short, among its virtues, “Ulysses” allows its readership to become expert, exhaustively and possibly exhaustingly, in Everything Dublin at the time of the novel’s creation.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Eloquently and interestingly said, jhNY!

      Though I haven’t read “Ulysses,” I can picture from your words how much of Dublin it evokes. And Joyce’s earlier “Dubliners” story collection, which I HAVE read, also told us a heck of a lot about that Irish city back then.


  7. Hi Dave,

    I’m again slowly (very slowly) making my way through John Jakes’ “Kent Family Chronicles”. It’s taught me so much about American history and geography. It’s also taught me that war seems to be a really silly way of settling a disagreement. Though I may have already known that.

    Thanks for the link to your previous post about films and literature. I can’t speak for everyone here, but I’d be more than happy for you to revisit some old themes if you ever run out of ideas for new ones!


    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Sue! Thank you! One of these days I might have to revisit some old themes (updated with novels I’ve read since the original posts). New ideas are getting harder to come by. 🙂

      Sounds like the “Kent Family Chronicles” is very educational on two levels — the American history part, and the war is dumb part. As you “deadpan-ly” noted, most readers already know that about war, but it’s always worth being reminded. Novelists, unlike people such as politicians and weapons manufacturers, have little to gain from war (other than as a dramatic book topic), so it’s not surprising that many authors are very skeptical about the nations-attacking-nations thing.


  8. Super interesting post, as usual, Dave! We learn so much from reading. Thanks to my favourite subject I now know a lot about 19th century Russia. We sympathise with the characters in the books we read, we live and experience with them, and when in real life we are faced with death, or love, or dragons, or steeple chases, we already know a little bit about it:-)

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Elisabeth, for the eloquent comment (including its droll ending)!

      I can imagine how much you know about 19th-century Russian history through reading Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Gogol, Pushkin, Chekhov, etc. As you allude to, it’s a great combination to learn about that history while experiencing characters’ lives and emotions.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I happened on a book of photographs depicting Tsarist Russia, and among the Romanovs in summer white, the early color portraits of ethnics in native dress, etc., I found a picture of prisoners in the peculiar hobbling stocks that Dostoevsky describes in “The House of the Dead”, a thinly-fictionalized description of his own Siberian experience– which I now take to be an accurate portrayal of conditions and surroundings of such places…

      Liked by 2 people

      • Sounds like an interesting photography book, jhNY!

        And, yes, “The House of the Dead” is definitely semi-autobiographical. When I read it a year or two ago, it often felt more like a memoir than a novel.


  9. Emile Zola’s Germinal taught us more about economics than coal mining. A careful read of the novel reveals that all that abuse, all that suffering, all that coal was attributed to two sweet old spinsters who raised cats and were oblivious to where their income came from.

    I remember a friend of mine, a teacher ranting about the evils of Exxon after the Exxon Valdez disaster and I had to point out the fact that the largest investor in Exxon at the time was The New York State Teachers’ Retirement System (NYSTRS).

    Now, that may have changed – but the fact that pension funds are the largest single pool of capital – has not.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Almost Iowa! “Germinal” is indeed full of economic lessons — relating to the idle rich, management vs. labor, working conditions more dangerous than they had to be, etc.

      As for pension funds, there’s definitely often an issue of ROI vs. social decency. Fortunately, at least some funds in recent years have pulled out of investing in the worst corporations.

      I think the main blame for the Exxon Valdez oil spill lied more with parties such as the ship captain and Exxon itself (including its wholly unsatisfactory post-disaster response) than with teacher-retirement funds.


      • Under-considered here is the plight of the state pension funds in recent years– underfunded, or in some lean years, not funded at all. The pension fund managers, whose payout obligations are unchanged, must seek out investments paying higher returns– among such, petroleum giants, pharmaceutical houses, etc. Worse, some have been tempted to put their money into dubious bond schemes. See 2008 crash for scope of disaster in such cases.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. I recently read the book “Mademoiselle Chanel” by C.W. Gortner. I wouldn’t call myself a fashion expert by a long shot. I also wouldn’t say it’s anything I’ve much been interested in. The little I knew about Chanel was how expensive her perfume is at the store. I picked up this book at the library because I was actually looking for another volume by the same author, but it was checked out and this was all they had. I read it – and I must say I was hooked from page one. Not just to the writing (which was amazing) but to the story of Chanel and her life. Of course in a novel some of it might be dramatized, and I haven’t looked much into that yet, but I can tell you that the source list he had in the back of the book was about a mile long, so I feel like a lot of it must be based in at least some fact. I learned SO MUCH about the life of this woman, the ins of the fashion industry and what it was like during the 1920s and WWII years. I enjoyed it A LOT more than I thought I ever would. It really is fun sometimes to learn through novels, especially when you least expect it!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, M.B.! Wow — what a terrific, serendipitous example of a novel you learned a lot from! Like you before you read “Mademoiselle Chanel,” I know virtually nothing about the fashion industry (past or present) and also have little interest in it. Must have indeed been quite a book to hook you.

      One of the few novels I can recall reading that has some fashion-industry content is Robert Galbraith’s (J.K. Rowling’s) excellent crime thriller “The Cuckoo’s Calling.”

      Liked by 1 person

    • from wikipedia:
      “In late 2014, documents were declassified and released by French intelligence agencies confirming Coco Chanel’s role with Germany in World War II. Working as a spy, Chanel was directly involved in a plan for the Third Reich to take control of Madrid. Such documents identify Chanel as an agent in the German military intelligence, the Abwehr.”

      There’s more:

      I still admire many of her designs; the designer, not so much. Lagerfeld was no big change of heart, however much he may have changed the design house’s direction.

      Liked by 3 people

  11. 2nd Attempt:
    Dave, I’m glad you enjoyed the Dick Francis novel; I think he’s a very good and interesting writer.

    I wanted to mention the novelist, Lisa Genova, someone I’ve learned a lot from about neuroscience diseases. She is a neuroscientist and really knows her field. I started off reading “Still Alice” about a college professor who develops early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease, and chronicles her and her family’s transition to a different life. I then read “Left Neglected” about a woman who suffers from left neglect (or hemispatial or unilateral neglect) following a TBI. Very interesting and something I never knew of before reading this book. Next was “Love Anthony” about a boy with nonverbal autism. After that there was “Inside the O’Briens,” about a family, some who may or may not have Huntington’s disease. All very fascinating stuff. There were lots of clinical info, but it was more about the way their families and those afflicted with those diseases coped with a new normal.

    Best of all, Dave, as I was refreshing my memory of these novels, I discovered that Genova has a new one out, “Every Note Played,” which of course I must read! So thank you!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Kat Lit! I appreciate you being one of the people recommending Dick Francis! He IS an excellent writer.

      And thanks for all the excellent information about the novels of Lisa Genova, whose work I’ve yet to read. Will try to remedy that in the not-too-distant future. I greatly admire authors who can combine education and a compelling story.


      • Her first novel, “Just Alice” was made into a film, starring Julianne Moore for which she won an Oscar (speaking of Oscars). I wish I could say I’ve watched the movie, but, alas, not. I seem to have a prejudice against films that I’ve loved the book, unless they were anything remotely to do with Jane Austen. 🙂
        Every time I’d be shopping at B&N with Bill, I’d buy another “Pride & Prejudice” or other adaptation, and he’d always say, but you have that already, and I’d reply, but I don’t have this one. The only other books I have multiple adaptations of rather than all of Jane Austen, are Jane Eyre, (fancy that!), Lord Peter Wimsey w/Harriet Vane, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and Sherlock Holmes (those only starring Jeremy Brett!). When I say I’m an anglophile, I definitely mean it!

        Btw, Zazu flew by to make a visit here this morning to let me know there’s a high wind warning today, which since I’m sitting here looking out the big picture window in my bedroom, I can see quite well. As I do so, I’m very grateful that I spent the money to have all of the 11 dead trees on my property cut down. In fact, I can see the huge stump left outside my bedroom, so if that came down, it would have fallen right on my bedroom. Yikes!

        Liked by 2 people

        • Yes, Kat Lit, a timely Oscar mention. 🙂 I remember that “Just Alice” movie, though I haven’t seen it. I just don’t watch many films, and, as you alluded to, one never knows if a screen adaptation will do a novel justice.

          You’re right — certain authors and novels lend themselves not only to screen adaptations but to multiple screen adaptations of the same book.

          SO windy today. Some branches down in my garden-apartment complex. Very good move on your part to have those dead trees cut down!


        • Perhaps you will concur: David Suchet is the best Poirot, and Joan Hickson the best Miss Marple. (Further ‘proof’– Hickson was asked by Christie to play her.) I do appreciate some of the more recent Marple actors too, but Hickson is the ultimate, in my opinion. As to the prior Poirots of whom I’m aware: just NO.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I totally agree with you, jhNY! I loved David Suchet as the only Hercule Poirot ever. And I loved Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. I tried to watch a few episodes of someone who was brought in to play a more modern Miss Marple, but then they decided to also change some plot points as well — such heresy! I remember going through a stage when I’d read/watch Miss Marple on film or in books. Dave, can we keep this between ourselves? 🙂 Thanks!

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  12. Glad you enjoyed the Dick Francis book, Dave! His books are always extremely educational! He (and his wife, who helped a lot with the process) would always do a lot of research for each novel, to the extent that his wife trained to become an air taxi pilot for the book “Rat Race.” Dick Francis was himself a pilot for the RAF and a number of his books feature flying as well as racing.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. I have read a few of James Michener’s novels and they were an entertaining way to learn a lot about an area of the world and its history. Two come to mind that were especially impactful to me – Hawaii and Chesapeake. I also learned a lot from reading Ken Follett books but the one that stands out for me is The Pillars of the Earth. Great topic as usual, Dave!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Molly! GREAT mention of Michener! Much of his work is like an entertaining textbook in novel form (from what I’ve heard; I’ve only read two of his shorter books — “Tales of the South Pacific” and “Caravans,” both of which I liked a lot).

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I’m currently reading “We Were the Lucky Ones” by Georgia Hunter, which is about the treatment of Jews during WWII, with the focus mainly in Poland. I knew about these events, but it all seems even more real, now, especially knowing that the story is based on an actual family. I was reminded of the power of using literature (both fiction and biography/autobiography) in teaching empathy to children.

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    • Thank you, Becky! A number of Holocaust-related books are indeed very educational (also Erich Maria Remarque’s “Spark of Life,” William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice,” etc.), and those based on actual people have added devastating impact. And, yes, literature that teaches empathy is emotionally educational. I can think of many “leaders” in the world who could use that kind of education.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks for the other suggestions, Dave! I’ve seen the movie based on “Sophie’s Choice,” but not read the book. Incredibly sad and moving. I certainly agree with your last statement about some of today’s “leaders,” and I don’t see that happening, unfortunately.

        Liked by 2 people

        • You’re welcome, Becky! And thanks again for mentioning “We Were the Lucky Ones,” and your heartfelt description of it.

          I thought the “Sophie’s Choice” movie was excellent — almost as good as the novel.

          Yes, not much hope there’ll be empathetic change for the better in the minds of many of today’s “leaders.”

          Liked by 2 people

        • Perhaps this a bit left-field as suggested reading material: “Maus” drawn and written by Art Spiegelman. This is a comic book memoir (in book form) of Spiegelman’s father, who survived Poland and the camps. It too is narrowly told, and the various groups’ (Germans are cats, the Jews are mice, the Poles are pigs) interactions well told and detailed. I was surprised by how well the entire thing worked, despite format and animal roles– these kept me away from “Maus” for a while, but, when I sat down to read, were no impediment to understanding, or even enlightenment.

          Liked by 3 people

            • Thank you, jhNY, for mentioning and describing “Maus”! Graphic novels are really novels in their way, so not too “left field.” 🙂 “Maus” IS interesting, Becky — I read it a number of years ago, and, as jhNY noted, it does work very well.

              As for Art Spiegelman, he’s brilliant but a bit of a neurotic oddball. I heard him speak once at a cartoon conference, and he was smoking so much at the podium it was rather distracting.

              Liked by 2 people

              • In college I often smoked 3 packs of Chesterfield Kings a day. I quit over 30 years ago– the smoking thing. I think I’m still entirely on-track with the oddball neurotic thing.

                Liked by 2 people

                  • Mine too– till he quit cigarettes and moved on to pipes, before finally giving up tobacco. His father blew the loveliest of smoke rings– it was just about the first thing I learned to do– after inhaling– when I began smoking at age 13. Of course, by then, my grandfather had been dead for several years– he died at 65, and never quit. I remember, during especially boring classes in one of my college’s older classrooms, that I spent much of my focus on getting smoke rings to travel far enough across the back of the room that they would be taken up, in a rapidly elongating oval, into the intake duct and away. I should have found better things to do, including, but not limited, to paying attention to the teacher up front.

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • It sounds like you got an “A” in blowing smoke rings! 🙂

                      Smoking was so much more accepted “back in the day,” and many people succumbed to that dubious lure. I remember my early days as a journalist covering township council meetings and the like, and coming back to the office with my clothes reeking of secondhand smoke from the many cigarette addicts in the meeting rooms.


  15. I hope you enjoyed Dick Francis, Dave! He wrote really well!

    On the subject of learning things, have you ever read Tom Clancy? His books are chock full of military jargon and acronyms! Since I worked for NASA for 34 years, I was trained to absorb things like that when reading at work. Clancy about drove me crazy!!! I was SO BUSY trying to absorb the acronyms, etc. that reading him was too much like work! I quit after a couple of books.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I enjoyed Dick Francis very much, lulabelle! Thanks for being one of the people recommending his work! “Break In” is excellent, and I’m hoping my local library has its sequel, “Bolt.”

      I’ve never read Tom Clancy, but I can see how jargon overload would be off-putting and — for you — too much like your job. One wonders if some authors just like to show off! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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