A couple of weeks ago I asked the historian what she was reading. Her reply:
I must confess that the nature of my work tends to limit the time I read for pleasure, but when I do get the opportunity, it reminds me of the enormous joy reading fiction can bring. In the case of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, I acquired a copy in an airport shop and began reading it while in Oxford, England where I was delivering a conference paper. I picked it up for a few reasons. A friend recommended it, my family couldn’t stop talking about it and, well, the title (of course) intrigued me. How could a book entitled The Historian become an international best-seller? How often are historians, librarians and academics the heroes? I could imagine the collective eye-rolling of my students. The subject matter, however, gave me pause (Dracula?!). Perhaps it was a reflexive reaction to Twilight. So with a bit of suspicion, I began reading. And I could not put it down.Learn more about The Fervent Embrace at the New York University Press website.
Kostova’s descriptions of the transformative experience of international travel for an academic moved me. Upon visiting the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, one of the characters notes, “Looking back at that moment, I understand that I had lived in books so long, in my narrow university setting, that I had become compressed by them internally. Suddenly, in this echoing house of Byzantium—one of the wonders of history—my spirit leaped out of its confines. I knew in that instant that, whatever happened, I could never go back to my old constraints. I wanted to follow life upward, to expand with it outward, the way this enormous interior swelled upward and outward.” I’d had a similar experience walking between the shrines of Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I in Westminster. It changed my life. Moreover, I found its settings particularly potent as I’d just visited most of the major locations in the book—Oxford, Istanbul, Romania—within the last year. Sitting on a park bench outside Christ Church College, reading, the eerie overlap of the settings with my recent travel itinerary began to make this novel very real.
Travel literature aside, I found The Historian served as a perfect metaphor for historical research. How many of us have grown increasingly pale and weak as we spend hours, days, years, feverishly researching our topics in the dusty bowels of libraries and archives? We aren’t chasing Dracula, but we are chasing something that consumes us. Setting the overall plot within the structure of historical detective work allowed me to overcome the sensational subject of vampires and embrace the characters with sympathy. Telling the story through story-telling (a father recounts his history to his young daughter) also provided an appealing analogy—we research our subjects, they come alive, and then we tell their stories. As humans, as researchers, as writers, as global citizens, we do indeed, as Kostova warns, “bequeath [our] history...”
The Page 99 Test: Caitlin Carenen's The Fervent Embrace.