What are some good novels with lots of factual information?

I feel a bit guilty reading novels because often it doesent help me learn new things. There have been a few exceptions ( such as Unintended Consequences by John Ross, which taught me more about firearms than any non fiction book about firearms.

So what are some good novels I can read and also learn from?

I enjoyed “Pompeii” by Robert Harris. It explains a lot about how the Roman water system worked (the water-master is one of the main characters). The description of the volcanic eruption is current to the latest understanding of what occured.

I found Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy extremely informative on a whole bunch of scientific and astronomical stuff.

“I, Claudius,” by Robert Graves. It’s actually two books, “I, Claudius” and “Claudius the God.”

I’ve read them both several times and they are fascinating.

Moby Dick. It will tell you all about whaling; indeed, much of it is just a nonfiction essay on how things were done on a whaling ship.

Neal Stephenson’s books are all great from the standpoint of historical fiction and scientific knowledge. Quicksilver is some of the greatest “you are there” writing I’ve ever read in historical fiction and amazingly so when you realize it was written by a guy with a geographer/physics background rather than writing or history background.

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series have lots of facts about ancient mythology and certain time periods in history.

The Aubrey/Maturin novels are set during the Napleonic wars and are filled with factual information about life aboard ships during this period and the culture of the times.

Harris’s Fatherland is also excellent, a thriller/mystery/alt-history novel set in Nazi Germany 20-some years after WWII. A lot of interesting stuff on the monumental Berlin which Hitler planned to build, and the kind of twisted society a victorious Nazi state would have become.

Gary Jennings’s Aztec is a terrific historical novel about the last days of the Aztec “empire” just before the Spaniards arrived, when their culture was at its height (advanced in many ways, despite its bloodthirstiness), and then how Cortes and his men went about conquering them.

Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, focusing particularly on Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet, and Union colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. It’s one of the best military-themed novels ever written, IMHO.

All highly recommended.

Devil in the White City is a very good look at the Chicago’s World Fair of 1893 and the impact it had on a number of famous Chicago architects. The serial killer part is also true, but much about Herman Mudgett must be speculation.

I believe the same author wrote a similar style piece on the deadly turn of the century Galveston Hurricane called Isaac’s Storm.

Hard to do better than the Flashman series by George MacDonald Fraser. They follow the career of Harry Flashman, a coward and a bounder who seems to have been a participant in every major military disaster of the nineteenth century, emerging unscathed with an entirely undeserved reputation for heroism. Meticulously researched, they offer a huge amount of information about Victorian military campaigns, not to mention the slave trade, the Indian Wars, Bornean sultanates, and the Madagascan monarchy. Plus they’re as funny as hell.

Salman Rushdie’s books are generally pretty informative, although you really have to pay attention (and even mark things for later googling) to tell which bits are satirical, which bits are just regular fiction and which bits are true.

*The Winds of War * as well as War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk. Lots of World War II information.

This is exactly the series I was going to mention. I was even going to use the phrase, “meticulously researched.” Not only are the books superbly informative and accurate as to a wide variety of 19th Century history, they are also madly entertaining and well written.

Also adapted into two very faithful and ecellent (if at times miscast) miniseries versions (if you ever have 912 hours to kill:p).

An obscure one but I’ll recommend it anyway since it’s online and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading it:

It’s a book written in the 1930s about Oscar Wilde’s tour of America but what makes it fascinating is its forays into 1882 America as Oscar travels from one end to the other. It describes the cities and the mountains and the prairies and the oceans white with foam (actually Oscar was irritated at how tame the ocean was) but, since Wilde’s lectures were all about the arts and decoration and Aesthetics, it goes into detail describing such things as the Chicago Castle (a water tower Wilde trashed- unpopularly) and the houses and architecture of that year. It also goes into major news stories including the tour of Oscar’s friend Lily Langtry, the zoo of a trial and execution of Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau, the killing of Jesse James, the post Reconstruction South, the enormous onslaught of non English speaking immigrants (to most Americans the Irish had been bad enough but the millions of Russians and Slavs and Italians and Yiddish speaking Jews were becoming scary), the Chinese (who were now being banned from further immigration) in California and Colorado (which Wilde actually had a lot of positive things to say about- he didn’t often), the Mormon polygamists, the miners, the unification of the country as it was connected by technology and recovered the war, the pathetic dwindling Indian nations in the west, the last of the buffalo, “Southern gush” and “Midwest puritanism” at his receptions, railroads taking over the nation, etc… It’s a great reminder of how the late 19th century was every bit as much a turbulent and fast paced time of transformation as the late 20th century.

It has a lot of Wildean humor as well of course. He mentions the bitterness of Southerners over the devastation of the war by relaying how one night in Charleston he commented on how beautiful the moon was that night and was quickly told “You should have seen it before the war”, or how in Leadville Colorado he saw the single most honest and constructive piece of musical criticism he ever observed- a sign over the piano that read “PLEASE DON’T SHOOT THE PIANIST HE’S PLAYING THE BEST HE CAN”.

*Not to be confused with a fairly recent (last few years) novel of the same name [sans 1882]; it may also be good but I haven’t read it yet.)

Definitely Flashman. For a more modern bit of history, try Tim Dorsey’s books starring Serge A. Storms. You’ll learn more Florida history than you knew existed.

Everything Brian K. Vaughn writes is full of completely random factoids. (He writes comics, not novels, but still).

Reality Chuck already took Moby Dick, which is what I came in here to say. The book is chock full of more than you ever wanted to know about whaling, which I found fascinating, myself. Read this book side by side with Victor B. Scaffer’s The Year of the Whale and you’ll be a whale expert.

Actually, lots of novels have information. Damned near anything by Jules Verne has lots of well-researched information. Mysterious Island will teach you how to survive on a desert island, ru n a balloon, and make nitroglycerine.

Frederick Forsyth’s novels have detailed information, but it’s probably best to check it elsewhere. read Day of the Jackal and learn how to pick locks, set up a hit, get a false passport (outdated), contact a forger, build an assassin’s rifle, how explosive bullets work (criticized as unworkable in this Board), track down an international hit man, and sneak things through customs.
C.S. Forester’s novels are full of information, too. Read his Horatio Hornblower novels (or his other seafaring books) to learn curious examples of running a British warship during Napoleonic times, from tricks for trimming the ship, naval tactics, and disciplinatry methods.

Bernard Cornwell’s novels are well researched to keep them as historically accurate as he can, and he includes a historical note at the end to clarify anything he changed or made up.


Moving thread from IMHO to Cafe Society.