You’ll Learn Things You Never Knew You Never Knew*

Questioning AssumptionsOne of the real benefits (at least to me) of reading is that sometimes, what we read challenges our beliefs and invites us to re-think them. Books like that can be a little uncomfortable; it’s not always easy to question our own assumptions about life. But those books are valuable for just that reason. They challenge us to grow and to re-shape the way we think.

Everyone has a different list of authors, series and books that have had that effect – that have helped us to question what we ‘always knew.’ So your mileage, as the saying goes, will vary. But here are a few books and authors whose work has invited me to question what I always thought. And that’s a good thing.

Before I started reading the work of Deon Meyer, I always thought I knew what a thriller was (And I’m not talking here of espionage stories; that’s a different category): an action-packed, adrenaline-loaded book. The characters wouldn’t have a lot of depth and the plot might require some suspension of disbelief, but it could be a fun and exciting literary ride. Meyer’s work has taught me that really fine thrillers have well-drawn characters who act in credible ways. Well-written thrillers also have more depth to the plot than I’d thought before. I’m very glad to have learned that there’s a lot more to this sub-genre than I’d imagined.

I’d never thought of myself as a person who liked science fiction. I could appreciate some science fiction authors’ skilled writing, and there were some novels I liked. But as a genre? Not for me. Well… until a number of years ago when I read Isaac Asimov’s Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley series. Those novels are unquestionably science fiction. Yet they cross the line into crime fiction as well (for those unfamiliar with these novels, Baley is a New York police officer). And that fact tempted me to try the series. I’m very glad I did. I discovered that science fiction has a lot to offer. It invites us to speculate; it encourages us to think of solutions to real problems, and; it can be very well-written. Science fiction characters can be deep, human, and quite memorable, and the plots can be terrific. Just goes to show you how much I ‘knew’ before I read Asimov.

A similar thing happened with my assumptions about post-apocalyptic fiction. I never thought I’d enjoy it. I’m generally not one for that sort of bleak, sometimes despairing, story. So I’ve typically avoided it. Imagine my surprise when I read and enjoyed Alex Scarrow’s Last Light and Afterlight. Those novels take place in a world where the supply of oil has been cut off; so needless to say, it’s a very different world to the one we live in now. The story of how one family tries to make a life after this catastrophe was – surprise! – interesting and engaging, at least to me. There’s also Ben Winters’ trilogy featuring police detective Hank Palace. Imagine me, who ‘always knew’ exactly what post-apocalyptic fiction was about, drawn into a very real, human set of stories.

Does this all mean I’ll ‘click here to purchase’ every new adrenaline-loaded thriller, sci-fi or post-apocalypse novel? No. I’m still cautious about them and in general wouldn’t choose them first. But I am a lot more open to excellent stories told in those ways. Perhaps I can learn…

I’ve also learned about about different people and things that I always ‘knew’ about before. For example, my assumptions about the sex trade have been challenged in the last few years. I thought I knew ‘all about’ why people become commercial sex workers, and why other people hire them. I didn’t. It’s a complex business, and people get into it for a lot of different reasons. The people who engage in the trade are not all cut from the same proverbial cloth, and they don’t all have the same experiences. Work by Angela Savage (Behind the Night Bazaar), John Burdette (e.g. Bangkok 8), Timothy Hallinan (e.g. A Nail Through the Heart) and Jill Edmondson (Dead Light District and Frisky Business) have all invited me to question what ‘I always knew’ about that business.

There’s also the matter of what I always ‘knew’ about Native Americans and First Nations people. I had no idea how much I didn’t know and how much I wrongly assumed until I began to read the work of Tony Hillerman some years ago. I was invited to develop a whole new perspective on a group of people I only thought I understood. I felt the same way after reading Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series and Margaret Coel’s Vicky Holden/Fr. John O’Malley series. Oh, and there’s Scott Young’s novels and Stan Jones’, too. All of them have challenged my assumptions in a good way.

I could go on and on about things I’ve learned about history, other countries and so on that I always ‘knew’ before. I think you get the idea without that though. To me anyway, learning to question what I’ve always believed is one of the very good reasons for reading. What about you? Which novels and series have invited you to learn what you always ‘knew?’

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken’s Colors of the Wind.


Filed under Alex Scarrow, Angela Savage, Ben Winters, Craig Johnson, Deon Meyer, Isaac Asimov, Jill Edmondson, John Burdett, Margaret Coel, Scott Young, Stan Jones, Timothy Hallinan, Tony Hillerman

28 responses to “You’ll Learn Things You Never Knew You Never Knew*

  1. yes indeed, great post!

  2. tracybham

    Some very good points in this post, Margot. I have enjoyed the post-apocalyptic fiction I have read lately and will be seeking out more. I also want to learn more about other groups, like Native Americans and First Nations people. I have read several of the books by Craig Johnson, but there are still lots of authors in that area I need to explore.

    • Tracy – Thanks for the kind words. And I know exactly what you mean about wanting to learn more. There are so many things I still don’t know – or only think I know – that I’d like to learn more about, and never enough time…

  3. Terrific post, Margot, and pertinent to questions I am considering in my PhD about whether fiction – genre or otherwise – has the power to change minds. Like you, I learn from reading and like books best that enlighten as well as entertain. Two recent examples that spring to mind are Val McDermid’s Skeleton Road, which taught me a few things I didn’t know about the war in the former Yugoslavia; and The Night Ferry by Michael Robothamv (coincidentally, with front cover blurb by Val McDermid), which contains disturbing information on the treatment of asylum seekers and also on just how far some people are prepared to go in order to become parents (on my ‘surrogacy in crime fiction’ PhD reading list).

    • Angela – Thanks for the kind words. I think The Night Ferry is such a good book! I’m glad it’s part of your reading list. I must do a spotlight on one of Robotham’s novels. And you’ve got such an interesting thesis topic! I think fiction has the power to change minds, but of course, you’re doing the actual work to find out. I’ll be really keen to read your results.
      As to Skeleton Road, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I don’t know enough about that war myself. I’ve learned some things about conflicts in that area since that time, but every time I learn something, I find out there’s more I don’t know.

  4. Margot: I had read a fair bit of history about what happened in WW I but never appreciated the overwhelming impact on the generation who went through the war until I read mysteries written by Rennie Airth (John Madden), Charles Todd (Ian Rutledge and Bess Crawford) and Jacqueline Winspear (Maisie Dobbs). It was an era when the survivors of the war essentially dealt with their memories on their own.

    • Bill – That’s exactly the kind of thing I had in mind with this post. I know what you mean, too, about the impact of World War I on the people who went through it. I learned about that through the novels you mentioned, and through Chris Womorsley’s Bereft. That one also taught me about the ‘flu pandemic at the end of the war.

  5. I so agree, Margot, learning from fiction is one of the most fun ways of doing it. It sparks my curiosity and I go to explore the historical details, read non-fiction accounts etc. But that only comes after the characters and the story have already captured my imagination and made me want to find out more.

    I’ve learnt so much about the life of the British Empire expats in Kenya via White Mischief (first the film, then the book by James Fox, which is reportage rather than fiction, but still…). Most recently, one book that particularly stood out for me was The Breath of Night by Michael Arditti, which helped me to understand so much about the Philippines under the Marcos and after, about issues of land ownership and poverty.

    • Marina Sofia – That’s just it isn’t it? A novel or series makes one curious, so one reads more, and that’s how one learns so much about things. But it’s that initial spark of curiosity that a book arouses that sets things in motion, so to speak.
      I’d heard that White Mischief was good, but hadn’t (yet) read it. I’m sure that it sheds a lot of light on those lives in that place at that time. And I still don’t understand enough about the Philippines. In an odd coincidence, I recently went to a presentation by a scholar from the Philippines during a conference I attended. It occurred to me while I was listening how much more I ought to know than I do.

  6. Col

    I suppose the majority of the time I read for entertainment only, but if I learn something into the bargain, well it’s a pleasant bonus. From that perspective it would be hard to say what I have picked up and from where.

    One that does stand out would be Lime’s Photograph by Leif Davidsen. That definitely increased by knowledge of Spain and the Civil War and Franco.

    • Col – I think that the books from which I’ve learned the most were books that also kept me drawn in. The plot, the characters and the like have to be interesting. If they aren’t, then I don’t learn much of anything anyway. So I know exactly what you mean about reading for entertainment first.
      I admit I’ve not (yet) read Lime’s Photograph. But Davidsen’s talented, and I’ve heard good things about that one. Should put it on the list…

  7. Margot – Yet another thoughtful post on a fascinating topic. The contrarian in me makes me receptive to revisionism and thinking which challenges the orthodox views, but more so in nonfiction I suppose. However, the alternative history genre in fiction (and movies) is along the same lines and might be seen a first cousin to the post-apocalypse novel.
    An example (not necessarily post-apocalyptic and following up on Marina Sofia’s comments) we learn a lot we maybe didn’t know about the British in India and the waning days of the Raj through the novels of writers like Paul Scott and E.M. Forster.

    • Bryan – I know what you mean about having a streak of contrarian. I think it can sometimes be a very good idea to prize the doubt, as the saying goes. And thanks for mentioning Scott and Forster; both give interesting insights into life in India during the last years of the Raj.

  8. I’ll join in the praise of ‘Skeleton Road’ for helping me to understand the Serbo-Croatian conflict a bit better. The other book that springs to mind in this context is one of your own recommendations, Margot – Kishwar Desai’s ‘Witness the Night’ which really shed some light on the subject of female infanticide for me, particularly that modern methods of identifying the gender in the womb have been incorporated into existing customs…

    • FictionFan – Well, there’s no doubt about it; I shall have to read Skeleton Road. I’d be interested in it anyway, and the fact that it helps in understanding that conflict better only makes it more tempting. As far as Witness the Night goes, I’m glad you got the chance to read that. It opened my eyes to so many things I’d not thought of before, and you’re right’ it certainly sheds light on the merging of traditional customs with modern technology.

  9. kathy d.

    This is the type of topic that could have us thinking for weeks.
    What immediately comes to my mind is how much I learned about Indigenous people in Australia from Nicole Watson and Adrian Hyland and the persistence of discrimination.
    And, yes, Witness the Night opened my eyes further to the oppression of women and girls in India, and Kishwar Desai’s next book Origins of Love educated me more about surrogacy in India. Although done humorously, serious issues are raised about the poor women who become “surrogates,” and the strict conditions (without rights) of their confinements while pregnant.
    Jayne Keeney also educated me about sex workers and also the poverty that would drive a family to allow children to do this in an extremely impoverished country. This was a real shocker, as told by Angela Savage.
    And her next book The Half-Child had a lot to say about poor women boarding children and unscrupulous childl-buying.
    Sara Paretsky’s Critical Mass educated me a bit more on life for Jewish families during the start of WWII in Vienna.
    Claudia Piniero’s book Thursday Night Widows taught me more about the Argentinian economic crisis in the early 1990s.
    Gee, when I think of it, most books do teach something. Global crime fiction introduces readers to the world of a particular country, its customs, culture, etc.

    • Kathy – You’ve given some really fine examples of authors who’ve had a lot to teach as well as fine stories to tell. And I think that’s the key to an excellent book. When the focus is on the plot, as it is in the books you’ve mentioned, we get drawn into the stories and we see what those larger issues are like when they are faced at the human level, if I can put it that way. What’s more, when the stories are well-told, and they’re about real people, the book tells a compelling story, rather than give, say, a history lesson. It’s not easy to pull that off, but when it works, we learn while we’re absorbed in a story.
      You’re quite right too that the more we read crime fiction from around the world, the more we learn about that world.

  10. kathy d.

    Even John Grisham’s books teach something: The Chamber educates on the U.S. death penalty, Sycamore Row about a horrific practice in Mississippi, and so on.

  11. I know James Ellroy divides opinion, but reading him made me think about the level of violence I’m prepared to accept in a crime novel. It I think it’s appropriate that I will carry on reading.

    • Sarah – That’s a well-taken point. I would ordinarily say I’m not one at all for an awful lot of violence in a novel. But there are some authors, such as Ellroy, who can pull it off. Interesting way to think of opening one’s mine, so thanks.

  12. Issac Asimov’s essay on writing a science fiction mystery is one that you must read if you can find it (I think it was the introduction to his short story mysteries, but I’m not sure). He says that it is perhaps one of the toughest things to write, because while it is so tempting to create a technology that solves the crime, the challenge is to keep the solution to something that the reader is aware of. And even more than in the Bailey series, he succeeds in the short mysteries that use the three laws of robotics. Once you read those, you will put him up there with the masters of detective fiction.

    Coming from a culture very different from the predominant culture of books written in English, I learnt very early to go into books with an open mind. Books rarely make me challenge what I know- they help me grow my knowledge of things I know nothing about.

    Ths books on the sex trade, I really want to read. Because so much of my current work is built around that.

    • Natasha – Oh, I like the point Asimov makes so much! He’s really right, too. The whole point is to keep the reader drawn in, and that won’t happen if the technology gets in the way, so to speak.
      And I love the way you describe your own mindset when you read. I’ve learnt so much from books about things I knew nothing of before. And that especially happens with books written by people from cultures that are different to mine and about places I haven’t been (yet).

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