Historical Musings #9: Reading broadly or reading narrowly?

Historical Musings In my fourth Historical Musings post back in July, I asked about favourite time periods in historical fiction. This month’s post is on a similar theme: when you read historical fiction, do you stick to one or two periods or are you happy to try anything and everything?

I am genuinely interested in most historical periods (I’ve always been less drawn to Ancient history, although that may be starting to change) and I feel that I read about a wide range of them. Looking back at the historical fiction I’ve read so far this year, I have read novels set during both World Wars, the English Civil War, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and the fall of Constantinople. I have read books set in Renaissance Italy, medieval England, 16th century Scotland and 19th century China – and too many others to list here.

Sunne in Splendour I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on any of the historical periods or subjects that I like to read about, but there are some that I find myself reading more often than others – particularly the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses. To take the latter as an example, according to the list I have compiled here, I have read and reviewed 22 books on the Wars of the Roses since I started blogging in 2009 (19 fiction and 3 non-fiction). However, when I read other people’s reviews of the same books, I am often amazed and impressed by other readers’ depth of knowledge and their ability to spot minor historical errors that I hadn’t even noticed. This leads me to wonder whether some people (assuming they are not actually historians or students of the period) are simply better at retaining and remembering information than I am, or whether they have been focusing their reading on that one particular period to a greater extent than I have.

Sea of Poppies I can see the advantages of reading with a ‘narrow’ focus – gaining different perspectives on the same subjects, seeing how different authors portray the same characters, and adding to and expanding on existing knowledge. But while I do enjoy – and will continue to search out – books on the Wars of the Roses and my other favourite periods, I would get bored if I read about them all the time. I also love to discover new times and places about which I previously knew little or nothing. Some of my favourite new discoveries in 2015 have been the First Opium War (Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy), the reigns of the 7th century kings of Northumbria (Edoardo Albert’s Northumbrian Thrones Trilogy), 18th century Portugal (The Devil on her Tongue by Linda Holeman) and the life of Cicero (Imperium and Lustrum by Robert Harris).

If some readers like to read ‘narrowly’, as I have described it here, I’m sure there are others who prefer to read very ‘broadly’ as far as historical fiction is concerned – and once they have read one or two novels with a particular setting, are happy with the knowledge they’ve gained and are ready to move on to something else. For me, though, neither reading narrowly nor broadly is enough: I like to do a mixture of both, which is probably why I always feel that there aren’t enough hours in the day!

What about you? Do you like to read as much as possible on one historical period or topic – or do you prefer to read about as many different ones as you can?

18 thoughts on “Historical Musings #9: Reading broadly or reading narrowly?

  1. Alex says:

    I don’t read as much historical fiction as I used to but certainly, when I was younger most of my reading was centred on the late medieval/early modern period of English history and I don’t think the quality of the writing was a feature that interested me. These days as long as the novel is well written and I feel that the writer has made an effort to do their research then I am happy to range far wider.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I suppose the danger in sticking to one period is that you can end up reading a lot of badly written, poorly researched books simply because of the setting.

  2. Margaret @ BooksPlease says:

    I like to read widely,covering a variety of periods and countries – for both historical fiction and historical non-fiction. I’ve just finished reading Imperium and am eager to read Lustrum next. I also l want to read Mary Beard’s SPQR: A history of Ancient Rome soon. This year I’ve read novels ranging from 49 BC set in Marseilles, to 1950s England and Africa and a variety of periods and places in between. For historical fiction I do like it to be accurate, but as I’m no expert I rarely come across historical errors and after all it is fiction.

    • Helen says:

      I loved Imperium and I thought Lustrum was even better. I must read the final book in the trilogy soon! The Mary Beard book sounds great too and has been getting very good reviews – I’ll be interested to know what you think if you do read it.

  3. Pam Thomas says:

    I’ve read novels from many historical periods, ranging from the Ice Age, Neolithic times, ancient Greece and Rome, right up to England in the 1970s, which may not count as historical at all (there’s a theory that if you can remember it, it isn’t ‘history’!). However, I do like those novels to be accurate and I find that if I read a book set in a period about which I’m fairly knowledgeable, there’s a much greater chance of me noticing even minor errors. Recent examples include the tins in an 18th century larder, the chocolate drunk in 15th century Spain (before the discovery of the Americas) and, worst of all, the fully functioning and well-staffed Roman Catholic nunnery in the heart of Restoration London. I don’t think it’s nit-picking, if the reader can’t trust the accuracy of what’s being written, then the carefully-constructed world inside the book begins to fall apart.

    • Helen says:

      No, definitely not nit-picking! There’s really no excuse for basic errors like those and it would make me wonder what other mistakes the author might have made. I like a book to be accurate, but there are other factors that are important to me too, such as an interesting plot, good characterisation and a strong sense of time and place.

  4. daniellecobbaertbe says:

    Having dyscalculia understanding time frames can be a challenge. I always need to double check or to ask people around me, if this is the 21 century. I read broadly. And what is more important to me than historical accuracy is that the story knows to transport me back into time. That I feel, smell, taste, see; that I can grasp the atmosphere of the time. And that the characters don’t have a 21 century mind frame.

    • Helen says:

      I like to know that an author has researched their subject and made an effort to be accurate, but I agree that the best historical novels are the ones that make us feel we’ve gone back in time and been fully immersed in the past. I can see how dyscalculia would cause problems with the time frames in historical fiction!

  5. whatmeread says:

    I read broadly, both in genres and in historical fiction, that is, I read just about anything that catches my eye, although much more fiction than nonfiction. And I read all kinds of periods of historical fiction, but I guess more Tudor and Victorian than other periods.

    • Helen says:

      The Victorian period used to be my favourite – and I do still find it interesting – but now I’m drawn more to earlier time periods. I read a lot more fiction than nonfiction too!

  6. Charlie says:

    I’m like you, I’ll read anything but I have my favourite periods. I tend to read fiction once I’ve read non-fiction first though there have been a few fiction books I read that got me looking for the facts. Regarding spotting errors I’d say it’s something you learn the more you read and how much factual knowledge you have on the subjects. And the more you read about the same event, the more you’ll retain. You likely know a lot more than you think you do 🙂

    • Helen says:

      That’s interesting as I tend to do the opposite – I like to discover new historical periods and figures through fiction first, then look for non-fiction on the same subject to expand on my knowledge.

  7. Angelized1st says:

    I also really love Tudor England and the War of the Roses, but have recently tried to branch out a bit. Lately, I’ve been reading earlier periods of English history, as well as Scottish. I’ve also been trying to read more of New York’s early history. However, no matter how many books I read about a certain time period, I rarely catch discrepancies. Most of those I catch when watching historical television shows, because I research the episodes as I watch. LOL!

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