Read a Book Today: To all the literature I’ve loved before

Photo depicts a town in Alaska, like the town described in Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock's book
Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s book “The Smell of Other People’s Houses,” due to its beautiful and compelling depiction of Alaska in the 1970s, inspires readers to take dive deep into the history of the state.  (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

I guess you could say that love is in the air. 

Rihanna nearly broke the internet when she debuted her baby bump on a walk in Harlem with A$AP Rocky. Lana Condor and her boyfriend just announced their engagement (So, I guess that means she is no longer sending out letters à la Lara Jean Covey?). Of course, that must also mean it is that much-dreaded season. That day drenched in cheap red and pink decor when you wear your SO’s jacket during the cool night of February 14th or you end up scream-singing Olivia Rodrigo and Taylor Swift in your bedroom thinking back upon all of your exes. So, are we singing “Deja Vu” or “Better Man”? 

It would be easy to assume that I would write column about romance books, right? I mean, I’m clearly in love with written romance, and ‘tis the season? Well, I figured that those in a relationship think their own to be so perfect that they wouldn’t want to read a crude imitation of date night in fiction form. Not to mention that those looking for love might be too frustrated to even consider picking up a paperback about romance. So no, instead I’m going to do this piece on my first literary love: history. 

Many times people ask why I am a history major. After all, here I am doing a column that is literally all about books. Surely, I would want to spend my university years making my way through Jane Austen’s collection instead of analyzing Shirley Chisholm’s presidential campaign.

Well, here is what most people fail to understand. History is basically a book itself (I’ve also compared it to a reality television show, but I digress). You have characters, setting, falling action and rising action. The coolest part? History is all real. These were human beings making the same mistakes that we do and can build upon. Yeah, history can be a bummer sometimes, but that’s the beauty of being semi-adults: You get to choose the history you read.

I like a story that I can settle into and meet the character like an old friend. As if I were learning their life story over a cup of coffee. Nowhere is it clearer than in the superstar, blockbuster book titled “The Dutch House” by Ann Patchett, owner of the Nashville, Tenn. bookstore  Parnassus Books. I was lucky because I listened to the audiobook, which none other than Tom Hanks’ narrated. Patchett’s book takes us through our main character Danny and his sister Maeve’s expulsion from their home – the titular Dutch house – and how their lives evolved from there. The reader ends up feeling like they are living these experiences with Danny and Maeve, or as if they are hearing this heartbreaking, fairytale-esque story spill out of Tom Hanks – I mean Danny. They feel human. It’s an exploration of family and heartbreak and protectiveness. And I think I need to re-read it immediately. 

Honestly, with books that I need to re-read right now, I think of “The Smell of Other People’s Houses” by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock. Even though my history specialties are women in American history and Jewish American history, there are still massive gaps in my knowledge (You can’t get every single question on Jeopardy, after all). 

One of the main gaps is Alaska. Alaska is a fairly recent addition to the United States, and there was a massive fight to preserve the culture of indigenous Alaskans. What spurred my interest in that? Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s book. “The Smell of Other People’s Houses” deals with Alaska in the 1970s, but it goes into great detail about the fight against statehood in the 1950s. Hitchcock interweaves four teenagers stories (Ruth, Dora, Alyce and Hank) into this Alaskan landscape; she writes so beautifully I felt the chill on my cheeks and was just about five seconds from booking a flight to Anchorage. It’s better to go into this one knowing little, so just pick it up. 

Here’s the thing about history: There is so much of it. I haven’t learned every single thing about history at USC, nor did I really expect to, because we have seven continents and people have made discoveries on each one. There have been wars, and people are going about their day-to-day life. 

As you might imagine, I can’t fit every single diverse experience in this column and you can’t learn all of history (that’s why we have specialties!). 

There is so much in historical fiction and historical literature beyond the wars. 

Read Jamaica Kincaid and Toni Morrison or Chaim Potok and Emma Lazarus. Read Julia Alvarez and Gabriel García Márquez. Read Celeste Ng and Michelle Zauner’s fantastic memoir and read Louise Erdrich and Tommy Orange. Read American authors and read beyond the U.S. 

There is so much out there to learn, it’s dizzying, and there is so much that we don’t know simply because it’s lost: a dead language, the 18-and-a-half minutes of the Watergate tapes or the Library of Alexandria. 

My love for history started with learning about the Presidents’ lives (did you know that John Quincy Adams went skinny-dipping in the Potomac?) through books that looked at them one by one in caricature-like drawings. Now I consider myself an expert on revolutionary women in the summer of 1781 and the labyrinth of my family’s history. 

History is like a tree; you climb from branch to branch, and the best and most scary part about it all is there is always more to learn. So many preconceived notions to break down. So, if you don’t like the film that your S.O. is watching this Valentine’s day, or if you have exhausted your Taylor Swift playlist (though really, how could you?), pick up a historical book.

Rachel Bernstein is a senior writing about books in relation to the arts and entertainment news of the week. Her column “Read a Book Today” runs every other Friday.






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