Monday, January 17, 2011

Rekindling dead interest.

What are you supposed to do when you fall off the motivational wagon? Or when you just get out of the habit of doing something? Up until now, this hadn't happened to me in a very long time because I have always had rather strict habits, but three months of breaking those habits had certain effects. So what to do?

The other day I had a friend over for a visit. She is very interested in things connected to politics and knows more than the average person about many odd countries, so I asked her how she goes about to acquire this knowledge. It's not really obvious (besides Wikipedia) to know where to start when you all of a sudden want to read up on... Turkmenistan. She said that along with factual texts and books, she also explores literary productions from the country in question in order to get more of a feel for things. Of course, this is a person who probably reads faster than anyone I know, and when you do that, this approach is not that time-consuming, but as long as you have free time what's the problem?

It is not the first time this idea strikes me, but it kind of felt like a revelation to be reminded of it. Novels are an excellent way to get loosely acquainted with history and this is one of those instances when I think you should not underestimate the use of literature (you know all those people who ask what good literature can do?). When you read a fictional book about something it usually gets an emotional hold on you, more than any nonfictional book ever could, and when you combine it with hard facts from other sources, I think your chances of remembering things increases dramatically.

Now, I belong to that group of people who learn languages and who also want to learn things about the country the language is spoken in and its culture. For a long time, I have been wanting to read up on Hungarian history. Now that I can't really make myself study Hungarian, I thought that perhaps by reading about Hungary I could trigger the spark of motivation. At the same time, I'm studying democracy at University, so why not combine all three? Yesterday I found the book Carrying a Secret in My Heart, dealing with recollections from the children of the revolutionaries of 1956 in Hungary. If all goes according to plan, I'm going to follow this book up with another one on the development of democracy in Poland and Hungary, entitled From Elections to Democracy: Building Accountable Government in Hungary and Poland. Hungary is an extremely interesting country at the moment, but sadly I have extremely poor knowledge of what is actually going on there and the historical explanations to it. But it's not like you have to go to school to get educated! At University you get a diploma, study you can do at home ;)


  1. I have always found (good!) novels even more historical than historical non-fiction, not only more emotionally binding. Dates are just dates, but only good fiction can transmit you the passion, feelings, culture, society, even sights of the historical and geographical moment. There's no lack of historical books to "combine hard facts from other sources", simultaneously or at a later time.

    It has worked with me with the history of Italy, Finland, France, Russia, Poland, England, America,... and I boldly and immodestly declare that there are a couple of areas of history I am almost an expert of.

  2. Leo, how nice to get a sign of life from your!

    As long as you know the actual facts, I agree with you that fiction is better at retelling history than nonfiction. Nonfiction usually has that necessity to try to strive at objectivity, something that renders it rather lifeless... However, if you know absolutely nothing about the subject and just go ahead and read a novel about it, you may very well end up with a contorted view of the actual happenings. But on the other hand, does history necessarily have to be objective? Speaking of this, I remember reading an essay on the gray zone between fiction and nonfiction in history writing and how fiction is starting to influence nonfiction (and how the two were more connected in the past). I have to reread it though, because I don't remember all that much about it :-) In case you're interested, it's called "History of Events and the Revival of Narrative" and it's Chapter 20 of a book called "The History of Narrative Reader" by Peter Burke.

    By the way, have you ever read anything about Hungarian history?