Ever have one of those moments after making a major decision about academic or career paths when you look back at your earlier years and realize that the chain of events leading to said decision goes back waaaaaaaay farther than you initially thought?
Yeah, happens to me a lot these days.
When I was in junior high and high school, most of what I read was fantasy literature. Not science fiction. Fantasy. I tore through the “sheroes” novels of Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley, and read and re-read the dark fairy tale retellings of Donna Jo Napoli. Her rendition of Rapunzel in “Zel,” permeated as it was by the intensity of obsessive, destructive love, haunts me to this day. I read each new Harry Potter book on the day it came out, and almost always finished it that same day. “The Lord of the Rings” was a bit more of a challenge, but I made it through and fell in love. “His Dark Materials” was a bit easier, and is probably the closest I got to science fiction.
That was most of what I read.
It’s now, after college and grad school, that I can look back to elementary school and realize that my academic interests can be traced to those years, rather than my teens. When I was little, the “American Girl” books, associated with the doll series of the same name, were very popular. I read them over and over, and eventually owned the entire series associated with the doll I had – Samantha – whose backstory falls during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt in the early 20th century. But I remember more of them by name still, and I can envision the illustrations and remember character names without much effort.
My elementary school years also coincided with a series of journal-style historical fiction novels for kids called “Dear America” and “My Name is America.” The stories tell of children caught up in major moments of American history, like the Civil War or the waves of Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There was even a special spinoff series of “royal diaries” supposed to be written by young princesses in history, like Cleopatra or the future Elizabeth I of England. It’s simplified, sanitized history to be sure, but I devoured every word, including the nonfiction appendices that explained (at a kid level, of course) events like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire or the kinds of classes children had in school at a given time.
In retrospect, it’s not surprising I was a history major. Twice.
What’s surprising to people who mostly knew me best back in junior high or high school is that now I hardly ever read fiction. My fiction “reading” is done by audiobooks to which I listen when I’m taking a walk or doing other tasks.
These days, when I think of sitting down and reading, my inclination takes me to nonfiction or things that would get classified in the nonfiction section in spite of being fiction, like Boccaccio’s deliciously raunchy Decameron. One thing I learned during my history MA is that people on public transit send you approving looks if you’re reading a 1000-page book with a medieval-looking painting on the cover. Obviously they have no idea that the Decameron is a dirty, dirty book!
It’s not that I enjoy fiction any less than I used to, but rather that I find I am uninclined to try any of the new fantasy series out there. Most that I encounter seem to be aimed at the YA crowd, and I find them… predictable. Why read a book if you can guess correctly after two chapters how it’s all going to end? I listen to my old favorites again and again on audiobook, enjoying them fully every time.
I have discovered that what used to be an endless appetite for fantasy has morphed into an endless appetite for history. I am in love with the academic monograph. It should be evident to anyone who reads this regularly or who knows me at all that I’m unabashedly nerdy, that possibly my greatest passion is for learning for the sheer joy of learning.
Some people have a bucket list of places they want to go or adventures they want to experience. I’m building a list of topics I’d like to study. After all, most historical stories, with their rippling ramifications, seem so far outside the realm of possibility that if I didn’t know they happened, I wouldn’t believe it.
Think about it. Henry VIII and his six wives. The attack on the Medici brothers on Easter Sunday, 1478. Catherine the Great. The Civil Rights Movement. Genghis Khan and his “horde.” Moorish Spain, Al-Andalus. Ancient Egypt’s opulence and monuments. It’s astonishing that any one of those things or people existed, but all of them?