History: Books vs Musicals

January was a good month.  We had two snow days, which are always the cause for celebration in my house.  Today was our second snow day, and I made the most of it.  After beating the storm to the grocery store, I spent a good portion of my day watching TV and movies:  Psych, Ghostbusters (such a funny movie, I can’t recommend it enough), Boss, and Romancing the Stone.  When watching TV and movies, or seeing a play I stick to comedies.  Much to my surprise, not everyone shares my views.

I recently had a conversation with a college professor in New York City.  She commented on how Hamilton was disappointing.  This got my attention as, up until that moment I only heard good things about the production.  She loved the music, the dancing and the casting.  She found it entertaining, but it didn’t live up to her expectations.  With the reviews claiming it was ground breaking, she wanted the musical to present a new take on Hamilton, his life, and the time he lived in.  Basically, she was expecting a new interpretation of history.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a Broadway show and I have not been fortunate enough to see Hamilton.  However, when I do go to the theater, it’s to be entertained, amused, and inspired, not educated.  That’s asking too much.  If I want to learn something, I’ll watch a documentary, read a non-fiction book, or take a class.  I certainly don’t head to Broadway for someone to tell me, while accompanied by a catchy tune, how I should feel or think.  I like to interpret things for myself.

This doesn’t mean I think fiction and non-fiction are in their own separate universes.  I just don’t go to fiction for the answers.

My book shelves are overflowing with historical mysteries.  The stories take place in ancient Rome, ancient Egypt, Europe in the Middle Ages, Restoration England, and Regency England.  The reason they’re taking up space in my home and not just on my kindle is because they’rre all good enough to make me want to learn more about the time periods they’re set in and the people in those times.  If I find myself googling a name, a place, or a date while reading, I know the book is a keeper.  I also know that my book collection will expand because I’m going to buy history books about the period/people/places that I’m reading about.  The authors made me want to learn.

If I’m after a new perspective on a certain era, I find a book that features first-hand accounts, like journal entries, or personal correspondence.  I don’t expect someone to read the journal entries, interpret them for me and put them to music (and if they do, I’m going to go out and research it on my own, just to make sure).

Reading classical fictional series that were contemporary novels is a good way to learn about that era if you stay sharp and appreciate what you’re reading.  Take Rex Stout, for example.  He wrote the popular Nero Wolfe series.  The first book, Fer-de-Lance, was written in 1934 and takes place in New York City.  Stout writes around one book a year in the series until 1975.  As you read each book, you are watching New York City evolve.  There is a change in the landscape and society he’s capturing.  We get a glimpse of politics, sex, race, immigration (Wolfe was born in Montenegro), technology, fashion (Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s right hand man is a bit of a clothes horse), and finance.  Stout captures the end of Prohibition (in the first novel, Wolfe switches over from kegs of bootlegged beer to legally bottled beer), World War II on the home front, the meat shortage of 1946, etc.  If I ever write a non-fiction book, it’s going to be about the changes in NYC as seen from Nero Wolfe’s 35th Street brownstone.

There are other authors who paint pictures of the times they lived in, giving us a perspective on history.  These talented individuals are not trying to give us a history lesson, but they’re doing just that.  Although, I admit that I still study the era on my own.

I shared my opinion with the professor.  She listened politely, but could not be swayed to my way of thinking.  That’s OK.  Not everyone has to agree with me.  I suppose some people need to see things to learn, others need to read, and some need to experience it.

I hope your Snow Day was filled with as much laughter and contemplation as mine.

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