A good book will draw you in and hold your attention regardless of your knowledge (or lack thereof) of the political history surrounding the story. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien is a good example of this. Very few people love Middle-Earth enough to get through the textbook-like Silmarillion, and yet The Lord of the Rings is an almost universally appealing saga. This is because at its core The Lord of the Rings is about the characters—about Frodo and Sam and Strider—and their adventures right now, not about the dates and history that brought them to the Prancing Pony on that dark and stormy night. Sure all of those facts and figures have a bearing on our heroes, but it’s enough for Tolkien to allude to that history. What we as readers are really interested in is the thoughts and actions of our heroes in the here and now.
The same is true for just about any good adventure tale or romantic ballad out there. If the tale is told well enough, we can trust that the narrator is giving us the history we need to appreciate the story.
However . . .
As anyone who has read The Silmarillion will tell you, appreciation and immersion are two very different things, and Tolkien knew it. That’s why he wrote an entire history textbook for his fantasy world. Your enjoyment and experience of the story is expanded and enriched if you take the time to learn the history of your characters and their culture, to really immerse yourself in their world and understand it as they understand it; as the author understands it.
I am currently re-reading one of my favorite contemporary books, Kartography, for the third time. The author, Kamila Shamsie, grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, in the 1970s and 1980s, and this is where and when her story is set. The first time I read the book I was so blown away by the beautiful language and compelling story that it barely registered when I came upon reference to Pakistani history that I didn’t understand. All I wanted to do was devour the story in the book, and Ms. Shamsie gave me all the information I needed to fall in love with Kartography without knowing the history of Pakistan.
The second time I read the book, I couldn’t let myself off so easily. I was curious about the war the characters kept referring to, and why there was tension between the Punjabi and Bengali characters. I picked up on some new subtleties, and was not so quick to skim over the unfamiliar references. I looked up the words I didn’t know, such as muhajir (immigrant) and Ami (Mother). But still I must admit that I didn’t probe too deeply into the history of the story or the region.
This time, however, in my third reading of this excellent novel, I can’t seem to get enough of the history of these characters that I have come to know as well as I know my own children. My atlas is permanently open on my living room floor as I look up cities and roads that figure in the story. I have Wikipedia’s explanation of the Bangladesh Liberation War bookmarked in my internet browser, as well as the history of the British colonization of India. And I must admit, I now appreciate the book on a whole new level. My understanding of the main characters has much more depth, and even peripheral characters have taken on an importance I would never have seen in my first or second readings. My historical research increases not only my appreciation of the book itself, but also my appreciation of the author’s storytelling abilities. As much as I loved the book before, I understood only a fraction of the thought and subtlety that must have gone into the creation of Kartography.
If you’ve made it this far down in your reading of this blog post, I thank you. I won’t keep you much longer. What I’m trying to say with this lengthy diatribe is that the great books—the ones we love, that get a hold of our hearts and won’t let go—deserve to be read more than once; sometimes three or four times. Not only that, but they deserve a closer look. Do a little research into the setting, the time period. Find out as much as you can about the author, and the circumstances under which she was writing her novel. All of these things will enrich your reading experience ten-fold. It will bring you a greater understanding of literature, of writing, of human nature—and even of yourself.