Rereadings: The Historian
This is part of our Rereadings series, which alternates Friday-duty with Fairy Tale Friday. For more background on the series, check out this post.
“…the longing to seek out a place a second time, to find deliberately what we stumbled on once before, to recapture the feeling of discovery. Sometimes we search out again even a place that was not remarkable in itself–we look for it simply because we remember it. If we do find it, of course, everything is different. The rough-hewn door is still there, but it’s much smaller; the day is cloudy instead of brilliant; it’s spring instead of autumn; we’re alone instead of with three friends. Or, worse, with three friends instead of alone.”
My rereading of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova was a much more public affair than my original reading of it. It was proper New York read, complete with lengthy jaunts with the book on the subway and a few lunch-hour reading breaks. My original reading of the book occurred primarily on my quilted bed in my junior year dorm room with sun pouring in from a glorious Massachusetts May. This book utterly disrupted my reading period and prevented me from reading anything I was supposed to be studying in favor of feverishly reading about characters who had similarly forsaken their own academic fields of interest in favor of Dracula. But despite the change of scene, one thing remained completely the same between my original read and my reread: the speed with which I read the book and the sleep deprivation I endured to do so because it was literally too good to set aside.
One of the things I absolutely loved about The Historian (and continue to love, having now reread it) is its intelligence. Here is a book about Dracula that somehow manages to convince you that it is not crazy to believe he still roams the earth and that all the characters in the book are in fact in grave danger from said vampire and all his undead minions. How does Kostova do it? With her intelligence and persuasive prose. The book is full to the brim with impressively thorough and utterly convincing research that any historian would be pleased to call her own and Kostova’s dash of dark magic added to an otherwise factual string of events creates a convincing and thrilling narrative.
Her research is then combined with a beautiful writing style that is pervasively haunting and appropriately serious. Kostova portrays each character’s conversion to the idea of Dracula actually roaming the earth with a necessary gravity that offsets the character’s confusion and doubt of his or her own sanity. They react as any intelligent person would react to such information and Kostova relates it measured against the sense of the real danger the characters face by accepting this information. There are few moments of hysteria in The Historian. The situations are too serious for high drama to prevail. This is no sparkling vampire melodrama; this, Kostova convincingly argues, is real.
Rereading it alternately made me want to reread it immediately upon finishing or do some research and write a term paper. The book is so utterly and unapologetically academic that I think it should be required reading for an incoming undergraduate or graduate history major. If you set aside the vampirism, The Historian is a book about history coming alive, both literally in the form of Vlad Ţepeş and figuratively in the form of the narrator discovering the joys of research and the study of history.
In short, this book pretty much has it all and, despite its heft, is a quick read because of how well-done it is. I highly recommend it as both a first read and, if you’ve already had the pleasure, as a reread. This book is actually good enough to reread annually. And that’s high praise.