Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Sure, I Know the Queen, May 2007

By Jodie

Sure, I can get a little novel obsessed. It’s something that can happen to anyone with a reading habit. The serious literati encourage readers to believe that novels offer a highly refined version of truth that replaces dry facts with deeper knowledge, analysis with insight and narrative with imagery. They would have you believe that the end result of a novel is an extremely polished opal filled with shimmering, swimming words known as "the truth", something more intense and brilliant than the reality of non-fiction. It’s easy to get addicted to this potent substance and the glamour of its packaging.

The Non-Fiction Five Challenge, hosted by Joy at Thoughts of Joy, begins in May and will encourage readers to cut their fiction with a measure of fact. If, like me, you don’t watch the news regularly you’ve probably learned most of what you know about Afghanistan from novels like The Kite Runner, Shantaram and The Far Pavillions. It’s debatable how much truthful analysis is available in non-fiction publications about this and other current political events but reading the factual along with the fictitious can only be helpful when you consider how it expands your field of reference and better enables you to make your own deductions.

My own choices for this challenge all relate to Britain in some way. Every British citizen needs to be well informed of the empire they’re descended from in order to give themselves greater perspective on the attitudes others hold towards us. Too many arguments today are based on a simplified version of British history where, depending on your ill-informed point of view, we either monstrously enslaved everyone or heroically conquered everyone. Of course when people refer to Britain in this way they usually mean England and are including Wales, Scotland and Ireland in the column labelled "down trodden" that they’ve painstakingly drawn up in their exercise book. When I went to university in Wales I had no knowledge of Welsh history and so was ill-equipped to debate England’s oppressor status with my passionate housemates. I’m ashamed to say I only read one Welsh book while studying at Swansea and it wasn’t even Dylan Thomas. I still know nothing beyond their assertions and what I’ve managed to grasp on my own (if you want a real example of the English language as a colonising force I suggest you look at Wales before you start getting indignant about books that are donated to African programs). So I hope that Welsh Wars of Independence by David Moore will lay the foundations for future learning about Wales.

What could be more British than Stonehenge? Perhaps Rupert Everett, we shall see. Two biographies Stonehenge:Biography of a Landscape by T.C. Darvill and Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins line up to fight it out. Red Carpets was published just before Everett started turning up on tv wearing baggy ‘artists’ jumpers (that is being kind) so Stonehenge still has the weight advantage (that is not) but Rupert Everett is such a typically English high class, low talking actor and he has all the dirt to dish in his deliciously catty way. In these early stages I feel it is unlikely to be a tie.

Some of the best history can reveal shocking secrets. The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation by Ian Mortimer offers to fling the monarchy’s secrets into the street. Edward II previously assumed to have been murdered by the graphic method of a red hot poker being inserted up his arse may not have been killed in this fashion. By now you may have grown tired of books that effortlessly dispel folkloric versions of history. I had begun to wonder if there was anyone really evil or weak left in history apart from Hitler. Mortimer’s book promises much more than that, making the contention that not only the method of assassination may be inaccurate but also the idea that a Edward died prematurely. The shocking revelation that his beloved son may have known and willingly conspired in this fiction is rigorously debated. More intriguing than The Da Vinci Code or Diana.

Finally I picked The Rise and Fall of the Arab Empire by Rodney Collomb because it’s such a topical issue. To be able to say anything about the current Muslim society it is necessary to learn about their history, especially if you plan to say something out loud, in public, around decent people. Until you understand the ancient foundations of present cultures you can fully appreciate where arguments and beliefs come from which means you are in no place to pass comment, let alone judgement. Also the outline of Collomb’s book seems weighted towards the negative view of an Arab society that descended into a dark age as the West grew and expanded. I’d like to see if his arguments hold up, especially as historians have been explaining for some time why the West’s own Dark Ages weren’t so gloomy after all.

Would you believe that this is just a fraction of the British non-fiction I have gracing my bedroom floor? I even received a new package of biographies, mostly relating to British personalities this week. I couldn’t resist the stories of some spirited British females such as Jane Austen, Gertrude Bell and Emma Hamilton, who is bizarrely being billed as pre-Jordan. I’m excited about the first mammoth volume of Micheal Palin’s trilogy of autobiographies. Books about medieval times, mountain climbing, mammals and pirates cluster in piles.

If only non-fiction books didn’t demand so much attention; bypass a sentence in a novel and you are poorer, skip one in a history book and you are lost. Evaluation is made up of all the tiny facts collected along the way and the analytical arguments gather strength from each other, miss or misunderstand one and you have to march back to the beginning if you want to fully comprehend. Challenges like The Non-Fiction Five are just what the complacent mind, thick with fictitious love needs to spur it on to create new neural pathways. The factual is like the gym, getting to it is the hardest part.

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