Most people read novels for entertainment. It’s remarkable, though, how much you can learn from them.
For example, I couldn’t speak Japanese until I read James Clavell’s Shogun. By the time I finished it, I was capable of making short, polite conversation.
I knew that Battle Creek, Michigan, was famous for its breakfast cereals. But until I read The Road to Wellville, by T. Coraghessan Boyle, I didn’t know that in the early 1900s, it was also the home of an elite health spa. I was amazed at the tortures people suffered in order to cure their ailments.
I had to read John Grisham’s The Testament to learn that Brazilian Indian tribes have long been victims of colonization, much like those of North America, in some cases wiped out by chemical and biological weapons.
Non-fiction often contains surprises as well, some of them disturbing. Here are some things I didn’t know until I read some excellent histories and biographies:
- That German submarines were deliberately targeting merchant ships during World War I, a policy that led to the infamous sinking of the Lusitania (Dead Wake, by Erik Larson).
- That John Quincy Adams, future President of the United States, had to help man the pumps to keep his ship from sinking during a voyage to Europe with his father (John Adams, by David McCullough).
- That Clara Schumann gave 150 piano concerts between 1840 and 1854 while pregnant most of the time and dealing with her husband’s mental breakdown (Johannes Brahms, by Jan Swafford).
- That before their collaboration on the Watergate scandal, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were skeptical of each other, and that Woodward had a reputation as a lousy writer (All the President’s Men, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward).
- That in order to make their daughters more attractive to men, Chinese women used to bind their feet when they were children, despite the injuries and excruciating pain it caused (Wild Swans, by Jung Chang).
- That lawyers in Greece sometimes go on nationwide strikes (Pieces of Me, by Lizbeth Meredith).
- That a serial killer was at large during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson).
- That early in 1945, a team of U.S. Army Rangers launched a daring mission to rescue hundreds of American and British war prisoners (Ghost Soldiers, by Hampton Sides).
- That in 1952, future President John F. Kennedy took a course on how to look good on television from Walter Cronkite (Cronkite, by Douglas Brinkley).
Do you have any interesting facts to share from your reading? Send me a comment and I’ll share them with readers in a future blog.