Reading a Book Today: To All the Literature I’ve Loved Before

Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s book “The Smell of Other People’s Homes”, due to its beautiful and fascinating portrayal of Alaska in the 1970s, inspires readers to dive deep into the state’s history. (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

I guess you could say love is in the air.

Rihanna nearly broke the internet when she debuted her baby bump on a walk in Harlem with A$AP Rocky. Lana Condor and her boyfriend just announced their engagement (so I guess that means she’s not sending letters to the Lara Jean Covey anymore?). Of course, that must also mean it’s that dreaded season. That day drenched in cheap red and pink decor when you rock your SO’s jacket on the chilly night of February 14 or end up screaming Olivia Rodrigo and Taylor Swift in your bedroom thinking back to all your exes. So, are we singing “Deja Vu” or “Better Man”?

It would be easy to assume that I would write a column on romance novels, wouldn’t it? I mean, I’m clearly in love with written romance, and is this the season? Well, I figured people in relationships think theirs is so perfect that they wouldn’t want to read a rough imitation of a date in fictional form. Not to mention, those looking for love might be too frustrated to even consider picking up a romance paperback. So no, instead I’m going to do this piece about my first literary love: history.

Often people ask me why I am a history student. After all, I’m doing a column here that’s literally about books. Surely I would like to spend my college years browsing the Jane Austen collection instead of analyzing Shirley Chisholm’s presidential campaign.

Well, here’s what most people don’t understand. The story is basically a book itself (I also compared it to a reality TV show, but I digress). You have characters, setting, top down action and up action. The coolest part? The story is all real. They are human beings who make the same mistakes that we do and that we can build on. Yeah, the story can be underwhelming at times, but that’s the beauty of being semi-adult: you can choose which story you read.

I like a story where I can settle into and meet the character like an old friend. As if I was learning the story of their life over a cup of coffee. Nowhere is this clearer than in the superstar bestselling book titled “The Dutch House” by Ann Patchett, owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee. I was lucky because I listened to the audiobook, which no one but Tom Hanks narrated. Patchett’s book takes us through our main character Danny and his sister Maeve’s eviction from their home – the titular Dutch house – and how their lives evolved from there. The reader ends up feeling like they’re having these experiences with Danny and Maeve, or like they’re hearing this heartbreaking fairy tale spilling out of Tom Hanks – I mean Danny. They feel human. It is an exploration of family, grief and protection. And I think I have to read it again immediately.

Honestly, with books I need to read right now, I’m thinking of Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s “The Smell of Other People’s Houses.” Even though my history specialties are Women in American History and American Jewish History, there are still huge gaps in my knowledge (you can’t get all the Jeopardy questions, after all).

Alaska is one of the major gaps. Alaska is a fairly recent addition to the United States, and there has been a massive struggle to preserve Alaska Native culture. What spurred my interest in it? Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s book. “The Smell of Other People’s Houses” deals with Alaska in the 1970s, but it goes into great detail about the struggle against statehood in the 1950s. Hitchcock interweaves four teenage stories (Ruth, Dora, Alyce and Hank) in this Alaskan landscape; she writes so well that I felt the chill roll down my cheeks and was about five seconds away from booking a flight to Anchorage. It’s best to go into this one knowing little, so take it.

Here’s the thing about history: there’s so much. I didn’t learn all about history at USC, and I didn’t really expect it, because we have seven continents and people have made discoveries on all of them. There have been wars and people go about their daily lives.

As you can imagine, I can’t fit all the diverse experiences into this column and you can’t learn the whole story (which is why we have specialties!).

There is so much in historical fiction and historical literature beyond wars.

Read Jamaica Kincaid and Toni Morrison or Chaim Potok and Emma Lazarus. Read Julia Alvarez and Gabriel García Márquez. Read the fantastic memoirs of Celeste Ng and Michelle Zauner and read Louise Erdrich and Tommy Orange. Read American authors and read beyond the United States

There’s so much to learn, it’s dizzying, and there’s so much we don’t know simply because they’re lost: a dead language, the 18 and a half minutes of the Watergate tapes, or the Library of Alexandria.

My love for history began with learning about the lives of presidents (did you know John Quincy Adams dove skinny into the Potomac?) through books looking at them one by one in cartoonish drawings. Now I consider myself an expert on the revolutionary women of the summer of 1781 and the maze of my family’s history.

History is like a tree; you climb from branch to branch, and the best and scariest part of it all is that there is always more to learn. So many received ideas to break. So if you don’t like the movie your SO is watching this Valentine’s Day, or if you’ve exhausted your Taylor Swift playlist (but really, how could you?), pick up a historical book. .

Rachel Bernstein is a senior writer on books related to the arts and entertainment news of the week. His “Read a Book Today” column airs every other Friday.

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