But I also think it can be helpful every now and then to discuss examples of learning that looks “educational,” found in places that may be unexpected.
In the last few months I’ve been reading what’s certainly the most maligned of the broader historical fiction category: historical romance. People like to make snide comments about “bodice rippers,” and disapproving comments about what sort of people would read such “trashy” non-literature. Yet I’ve been not only enjoying the genre immensely, but also learning a lot. Shocking, I know! While books within the genre range from quite thoroughly researched and historically rooted to what’s perhaps best described as anachronistic, they’ve all lead to a whole lot of historical fact gathering. Thanks to my friend Google, I’ve been looking things up multiple times for every book I read, seeing what is and isn’t accurate, figuring out when exactly a story is set, and falling down rabbit holes in pursuit of more details about a particularly fascinating event or topic.
An incomplete list of things I have looked up and learned something about in the past four months of romance reading, in no particular order:
When (and where and for whom) wigs were fashionable; the British political party of the Whigs; the various “eras” in British history and where they start/end/overlap (Georgian, Regency, Victorian, Edwardian); the evolution of bustles and bonnets; the Peterloo Massacre and the Six Acts; the Cato Street Rebellion; the Corn Laws; history of condoms from earliest examples to mass production; bloodletting and the theories behind it; when the link between hygiene and infectious diseases was first made; what railway surgeons were; history of “sodomy” and other anti-gay laws in the UK, France, and North America; Regency era sex clubs; British nobility, all the ranks and rules around titles and courtesy titles; the differences between various horse-drawn conveyances; Mary Wollstonecraft and the Vindication of the Rights of Women; history of epilepsy and treatment of epileptic people; the anti-slavery sugar boycotts of the 18th and 19th centuries...
Even the staunchest supporters of learning-that-looks-like-schooling couldn’t find fault with studying history, and all of this gaining of greater understanding of the United Kingdom in Georgian through Victorian eras is thanks to the humble historical romance novel.
Constant curiosity, the drive to look things up, discuss and consider, is in large part an innate human quality… Though it can, of course, be discouraged and suppressed. Even when that’s the case, cultivating a practice and lifestyle of curiosity can be done, by paying attention to those sparks, the ideas or comments or facts that our brains get snagged on, and seeing where it goes. It helps not to put pressure on yourself to make a passing interest into something it’s not: a passion. There’s no need to force it, just follow it for as long as you’re eager to do so, and veer off down a different path when the mood takes you. Unless you have a specific reason for sticking with something past that point (and if you do have a compelling reason, go you!), there’s no need to do so.
I’m quickly becoming almost as enamored with historical romance as I’ve been of fantasy fiction for the last 15+ years, and novels in general definitely merit a passionate interest rating from me. But my online historical fact-finding missions don’t usually go very deep: I’m content to know important dates and make connections between different political events and movements without feeling a need to check out six books on the appropriate topics from the library. What’s important to me is that I keep on reading what I like to read, researching where curiosity prompts me to do so, and just enjoying going wherever life learning takes me.