Posted by: Sally Ingraham | November 20, 2010

It all started with the historian…

And that would be The Historian, the book by Elizabeth Kostova – hefty enough to stop a door, spooky enough to give momentary chills even in a speeding car, occasionally smirk-worthy, frequently sensational, but with the right mix of travel-in-foreign-places and academic sleuthing to keep me…pretty much riveted. Did I mention there were vampires?

Actually, and this is somewhat ridiculous, I didn’t know anything about this book when I checked the audiobook out from my local library. I think the barcode on the back must have covered up the words “vampire” or “Dracula” or “Vlad the Impaler” and probably “Transylvania” (all, er…dead…giveaways) because when I slipped the first CD into the player in my car and got not very far at all into the tale, I had a startled, “Whaaa…? Oh. Oh! This is a Draaacccula story…” moment.

Which is not to say that I don’t like Dracula stories. I’ll take a re- um…vamped I guess I do have to say, Dracula story over your average vampire tale any day. Because he, at least, is kind of based on a historical figure…which means what exactly? I don’t know, but Elizabeth Kostova thought that was interesting too.

She tells a rather entertaining yarn about several generations worth of encounters with Dracula, and the fact that she framed it in an academic setting populated by scholarly people, and made the plot shuffle along with the thoughtful steps of a librarian particularly appealed to me. There’s lots of paging carefully through ancient manuscripts, velum, and onion skin in pursuit of clues or hints of Vlad Dracula’s escapades, while living and while…less so. There are lots of old world settings, crumbling monasteries and cob-webbed crypts. Mmm, crypts!

But mostly….mmm scholastic activities. The book gets points for entertainment value, and I’ll probably pick up something else by the author in the future. What I really took away from it though was a nostalgic yearning for the fantastic and exciting days when, as a 13 year old homeschooler, I sat on the floor in the aisle in the adult non-fiction section of my library, scouring some immense tome in search of some tidbit about some historical person or event, so that I could add to my growing pile of notes, collected for the purpose of writing my own versions of history. How fondly I remember the thrill of research, the pleasure I took in connecting the dots.

Then the other night I had a dream where I was, with extreme earnestness, writing something like a thesis (however little I really know about those things) on linguistics – some branch of linguistics, the origin of language itself I think. I woke up and started thinking about how much I used to enjoy reading about mathematics…

Here’s the end of this grindingly slow train of thought – I want to read more non-fiction! I have some unexpected free time coming up – instead of being laid off for 6 weeks, I’m going to have the next 3 months off. This hampers my book buying, of course, but I’m somewhat staggered by how much reading time I’ll have. I intend to go back to school, the only way I know how – via books (and maybe Rosetta Stone…) Here’s the beginnings of a tentative reading list for my self-styled secondary education:

The Language of Mathematics: Making the Invisible Visible by Keith Devlin

The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language by Steven Pinker

The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention by Guy Deutscher

The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang

These are just the books I came up with today – when December bludgeons me with free time, I’ll begin raiding my library for anything and everything that looks interesting. What else do I need? Maybe a notebook, and a good pen. And also any suggestions from you all – what have you read recently that was an utterly fantastic, simply riveting book on a fascinating subject or person, something that proves once again that truth is stranger than fiction?


  1. Good luck with your project, Sarah! I’d actually like to read The Historian myself some day, but I think it’s just too dang long for this year with what time’s left. Speaking of doorstoppers, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, about Scott’s failed expedition to Antarctica, is one of my favorite nonfiction works ever…but it’s very long.

    • I really did enjoy The Historian a lot, even if the characters were less 3D than I usually like and some of the plot points were highly unlikely – and I’m not referring to the bit about Vlad Dracula being a vampire who’s still very much “alive” and well…! I’m a sucker for historic mysteries though.

      Thanks for the book recommendation. I’m pretty interested in the history of Antarctica, especially now that a good friend of mine is living and working there for their summer. 🙂

  2. […] what we have here is a failure to communicate by tuulenhaiven – “It all started with the historian…“ […]

  3. On your linguistics theme, I loved John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language: very engagingly written and fascinating popular history of how languages evolve and change. But it might be repetitious to read it in close proximity to the Deutscher. I enjoyed the Pinker book too.

    For a different type of history, Judith Ulrich’s The Age of Homespun is totally fascinating – she does artifact-based history, meaning that each chapter is structured around a single hand-crafted artifact (everything from half-finished knitted stockings to hand-hewn hope chests) and she delves into the social and historical significance of the object and its means of production for the everyday people in the area at the time (which is New England, from pre-Revolutionary times to mid-1800s). It might be especially fun since you live in that general region!

    • Thanks for the tips Emily! Both books sound interesting. I would definitely like to look through the Ulrich book, as I am fascinated by handcrafts. I don’t do anywhere near as much as I used to, (although I hope to do some projects during my time off!) but while growing up my mother always had me working on some piece of knitting or crocheting or quilting. Fun.

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