Since starting this blog, I’ve altered my reading habits somewhat. I’ve always been a one-book-at-a-time kind of girl — I just can’t do the being in the middle of lots of books at once — but I’m now usually switching back and forth between whatever adult book I’m reading (mostly on the subway) and kids books (mostly at home evenings and weekends). And since for adult books I mostly read history, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I read so little history as a kid.
My thoughts go something like this:
I love reading history, particularly histories with a radical or left-wing bent. And its because a well-written history about something I care about that happened is, first and foremost, an exciting and engaging story. Even if I know the outcome more or less, there are truly inspiring characters, people I can relate to, situations that may be set in a different time and place but that resonate with my own experiences. There are exciting plot lines with frustrating moments, upsetting moments, triumphant moments.* In short, a lot of the same elements that make for a good fiction story.
Now, what’s odd to me is that I read very little history as a kid or teenager. I did read a lot of those blue biographies of famous people’s childhoods.** And I liked the “If you were alive in the time of…” books, which apparently are still around with updated covers, and I should check them out. But mostly I read tons and tons of historical fiction. The interest in history was there – I always loved social studies and history in school, I was always interested in and inspired by what I knew of the history of the labor movement,*** women’s movement, and abolitionist & civil rights movements. Part of what I liked so much about historical fiction was learning the history. I think if they had crossed my path, I would have been interested in good non-fiction histories of those movements and periods of time. I also had a very deep interest in the holocaust, read tons of historical fiction on it, but very little straight history that I can recall until I was maybe 15.
So I guess what I’m wondering is, why didn’t I read more history as a kid? Were there just not a lot of good, engaging history books out there? Did I just not come across them? Or I guess because my only experiences of reading history at that point were from school textbooks, I might have thought of history books as boring, even as I felt the subject matter was interesting and enjoyed learning about it.
I’ve read a lot of good things about WE ARE THE SHIP, which I haven’t gotten a chance to read yet. Are there other good non-fiction books that folks have come across lately, or remember from childhood?
*I get such strange looks on the subway sometimes because I’m reading what must look like a big boring history book and I’m grinning and almost jumping out of my seat in excitement because something so awesome just happened. Like, I just read a great history of Solidarity in Soviet Poland, and when all the workers were heading to their factories with food and sleeping bags to lock them selves in I just couldn’t contain my enthusiasm. (Yes, I am a huge dork.)
**I was talking about these with my dad the other day and he noted that this series idealized historical figures to the point of becoming fiction. Somehow I didn’t note that at the time, which is surprising since the history I got in elementary school was relatively non-idealized. (For example, in fourth grade my class put Columbus on trial for crimes against the Native Americans. I got to be the judge, which was super exciting, and when the jury found Columbus guilty I got to name the sentance and I gave him an infinity of homework.)
***Which I first learned about from old folk songs. Picture a 4 year old skipping around the house, singing along to The Weavers’ Talking Union, and pausing to ask, “Daddy, what’s a scab?”