Feeling Bookish: Should History Remain a Mystery?

Written By

Ushasi Sen Basu

Feeling Bookish: Should History Remain a Mystery? Loading

I saw this on Facebook a few days ago:

History.ll hay

 I take it the term “battle dates” is just a euphemism for history in general. If that’s the case I take exception to it. History is fascinating and history is important. It tells us how we got here, it tell us of the rise and fall of rulers and kingdoms, of the progress of civilizations—full of cautionary tales of what happens (usually it’s a knife in the back) when people get too swollen headed, and take it upon themselves (for example) to decide for others what a “waste of mental energy” is and what isn’t.

If you lean towards Ms. Hay’s way of thinking (‘How to be a parent’ on school curriculum? *Violent shudder*), I urge you to read the books on the list below. Yes there are “battle dates”, but only because hard facts often give you a better understanding of the riveting stories history contains. This list has a mix of historical novels and historical fiction (viz. fictional characters set in factual historical periods); and I have only shared the ones which I have found easy yet rewarding reading:

  1. I love everything I’ve read by William Dalrymple. But if I were to choose, I would say From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium is one of my favourites. He follows the route taken by sixth-century monk John Moschos who traveled through the Eastern Byzantium world, culminating at Constantinople. The author (who was quite dishy at the time judging by the photos in the book) discusses, as he travels through the middle east, how it has been a hotbed of religious unrest between Chritianity, Islam and Judaiism, for as long as human memory. Though written in 1997, it is, for obvious reasons, quite as relevant in 2015. This could also be considered ‘travel-writing’, along with another wonderful book called ‘In Xanadu’, but only if you have a healthy curiosity about history. I think the Last Mughal and White Mughals (which are undiluted by present-day narratives) are bloody brilliant too; but the ones I mention here are less known to us Indians and is therefore something worth reading, especially for a better understanding of what goes on beyond our borders.
  1. Short History of Nearly Everything: If there was ever a book to get you to fall in love with history and understand the significance of history on our everyday lives; this is it.
  1. The Conqueror Series: By Conn Iggulden. This is about the rise and rise of Genghis Khan. It has 5 parts, most of them (apart from the penultimate one) absolutely riveting. The novels give the readers a feel of living and travelling among the Mongols. Most English-language history novels deal with (not surprisingly) European and American history, so I was thrilled by this detailed insight into the life and times of a culture so far removed from that.
  1. Speaking of European history, I urge all of you ladies to read Philippa Gregory. Of course, one cannot possibly have a list like this without her. All her books in the “Tudor Court” and “The Cousin’s War” series deal with the perspectives of female characters based in the time she writes about. This by itself is a welcome change, isn’t it? Though the ‘Tudor Court’ series is probably more celebrated, comprising ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’, etc. I was more interested in the otherwise less compelling ‘Cousin’s War series because she writes about the mystery of the Princes in the Tower. Something which has doubly caught my curiosity after visiting the Tower of London myself and seeing where the two poor princes slept. Why waste “mental energy” on two over-entitled, possibly bratty boys who died 400 years ago, the pragmatic ones among you ask? Damned if I know really, but I would ask such people what exactly they’re doing with all that “saved up” mental energy. (I have trouble letting things go.)
  1. Roots by Alex Hailey: An extremely painful yet poignant book about the slave trade which brought Africans to America, and their brave journey down 14 generations to the present day. This was of course written several decades before Obama became POTUS, but the knowledge of this makes the tale even more bitter-sweet.
  1. The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye: A complete fairy tale but set in the backdrop of 1857 and then the Afghan wars. I’ve heard some people accuse the author of not being very politically correct in her other book about India, ‘Shadow of the Moon’; and I confess I’m not objective because I have always been — since reading this and watching the miniseries in my early teenage years — completely besotted with Ashton Pelham Martin, the “can-pass-as-Indian” hero of the book.

I’ve run out of space for today, but in the interest of rounding it off to an even 10 I would highly recommend the next 4 books/series as well in this genre:

  1. Raghu Karnad: The Farthest Field: An Indian story of the Second World War
  2. The Ibis Trilogy By Amitav Ghosh
  3. Memoirs of a Geisha: Arthur Golden
  4. Pillars of the Earth By Ken Follett

And what is such a list without one ‘Avoid like the Plague’ book? It would most definitely be Philippa Gregory’s “Wideacre” series, which is her debut. One wonders what possessed her and the publishers to not only do the first book, but actually follow it up with two more. Incest, murder, some more incest, some spanking…if being permanently grossed out is not what you desire, avoid this series like the plague.

Here’s to the joy of unravelling the mysteries of History!

Next installment of Feeling Bookish. Fantasy Novels!

Read last week’s Feeling Bookish piece: Literature for the Troubled Soul.




Ushasi Sen Basu, 37, lives in Bangalore and is the erstwhile Editor-in-Chief of SiyaWoman.com. She published her debut contemporary literary fiction novel, 'Kathputli’ in early 2017, in both Kindle and paperback formats. Ushasi has been a professional writer and editor for over a decade. She also has an unpopular blog called The Crib that pokes fun at everything, including herself. Ushasi (aka Shashi, "U" and 'You-Over-There') loves literature and music, and dances like nobody’s watching. She is the mother of a five-year-old girl, who is the joy of her life and grudging guinea pig for many of her parenting experiments.

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