I recently finished Imperial Life in the Emerald City, and when it was over, I began thinking about the role that authors and books have in shaping our view of history. Because as much as I sympathized with Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s opinions about the war, it still is just one opinion, one experience of the war in Iraq. But having been one that I’ve read, it informs my experience with the war, helps shape my opinion about decisions that were made, and will ultimately influence the memories that I carry with me. Ten years from now, how much my “memory” of this war will be from watching CNN and reading news reports and how much will be drawn from what I think of this book?
I wrote an essay about this in grad school, focusing on a time much longer past, on events in our history that I have no actual memory of. These two books, in telling about these events from a personal perspective, serve the function of creating a type of cultural memory for us. Beloved is about slavery and brutality and motherhood; it tells a story rarely found in history textbooks, forcing us to interact with our country’s history in a more personal, more palpable way. Blood Meridian is about Manifest Destiny, the drive to expand the borders of our country westward but at a terrible price. Neither is non-fiction, neither based on a true story, but both have informed my “memory” of these events. These books have shaped my experience with our history. I know that Sethe and the Judge aren’t real, but their stories help me understand something that happened long before my time. It can’t be the only kind of history that I know, but it can inform my historical knowledge. (Now that I think of it, Maus is another excellent example. It’s biographical so it’s different, but it still fits with this idea of the relationship between history, memory, and books. And if you haven’t read it, you must. There is much power within these line drawings of mice and cats.)
Historical fiction isn’t my area of specialty, but I do enjoy reading it. My interest tends to lie more in what we can learn about a period in time from the fiction that was written during it (along with movies, television shows, music, and so on). But it’s nice to think about history as something that can be more than just something in a text book or the sum of the parts of an analysis. When I read books like these, history becomes a living, breathing thing for the time that I’m living between the covers. And as long as the depiction is sound, that’s time well spent.