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Topic: Novelists as Valuable Social Historians

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Subject: Novelists as Valuable Social Historians
Date Posted: 4/23/2014 4:53 PM ET
Member Since: 10/17/2006
Posts: 1,427
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I started reading Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by the French economist Thomas Picketty, and in the Introduction, the author pays tribute to Honoré Balzac and Jane Austen, whose descriptions of how the 'social pyramids' in France and  England shaped the lives of the members of those societies back in that era (early 19th century).  Professor Picketty points out that "data" about the inequality of wealth (his area of research) don't exist for those "olden" times.   A Balzac title, Père Goriot, and an Austen title, Mansfield Park, were particularly mentioned.

In his book (translated into English only this last March), he also specifically mentions Germinal, by Emile Zola; Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens; and Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo, as valuable sources of information about the new 'urban' poverty that resulted from the rural  exoduses to the cities, in France and England, in connection with population increases and consequences of the Industrial Revolution, in the mid-19th century.

Last Edited on: 4/23/14 5:39 PM ET - Total times edited: 2
Date Posted: 4/24/2014 5:38 AM ET
Member Since: 6/30/2008
Posts: 4,173
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When I was at a small university once there was a woman there who taught a course in Russian history.  All of the books for the course were Russian novels.

Date Posted: 4/24/2014 11:19 AM ET
Member Since: 10/17/2006
Posts: 1,427
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Charles:  I had a similar experience in a course in Mexican history in the late eighties.  Our "collateral" reading included Los de Abajo (The Underdogs), by Mariano Azuela, a novel.  Other books on the list, though, were non-fiction, such as The Eagle and the Serpent, by Martin Luis Guzman, and  Five Mexican Families: Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty, by Oscar Lewis.

I've posted in this Forum before about how much good would accrue to students in all sorts of college courses (and not just those in the College of Liberal Arts) if they were required to do "collateral" reading, beyond the textbook (if there even is  a textbook, that is.).

Last Edited on: 4/24/14 11:37 AM ET - Total times edited: 1
Date Posted: 4/27/2014 9:13 AM ET
Member Since: 2/3/2010
Posts: 8,728
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Bonnie, I find this an interesting idea.  Personally, I don't enjoy reading historical fiction.  I'd rather read history.  However, Jane Austen, Emile Zola, et. al, are actually stories of contemporary fiction (contemporary to the time they were written, of course).  I can see how that would lend to learning economics, history, etc.,  I'm really getting anxious to read Piketty.

Date Posted: 5/3/2014 5:29 PM ET
Member Since: 4/4/2009
Posts: 9,750
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Interesting subject.

W.E.B.Griffin probably writes historical fiction. He has also been called a military historian, and that is even more true, though the two are not mutually exclusive. I have almost never caught Griffin as far as getting the facts wrong. What I like best, though, is his description of the military way of life and its customs.