Reading to get away from it all

September is here, so it’s time to get cracking on study plans and reading lists. Of course, the end of summer also means the end of summer beach reading, indulging in those novels with a strong narrative that drag you effortlessly from page to page as you laze in the sun.

A great standby is the thriller or murder mystery. It’s a clichéd format, but wonderfully seductive. I’m not a hard-core enthusiast, but I know enough to recognise the difference between the classical village-set Agatha Christie format where circumstances could have forced anyone in the close-knit community to kill, and the more American format where finding the murderer amongst a huge population require the best sleuthing skills, these days aided by CSI-like technology.

However much we want escapism, we also demand authenticity. We will generally put up with far-fetched plots but demand consistencies in other areas. It is fine that the hero jumps from a fifth floor window and lands in the back of a moving truck full of mattresses to escape his (and it is usually his) adversaries. But we bristle if we know that he couldn’t have boarded a train in Reykjavik (there aren’t any passenger trains in Iceland) or nobody could drive from Paris to Berlin in three hours. Facts count.

So, as a student of Politics and International Relations, which summer reads combine page-turnability with authenticity? Friends and family have asked me this all summer, as if my year of studying sovereignty and post-positivist theories has suddenly made me a touchstone for the best thrillers. To be fair, it was something that had intrigued me before going on holiday in July: where do I find a thriller writer that won’t annoy me with inaccuracies that contradict my very slowly growing expertise in international affairs?

I was delighted to discover this article in Foreign Policy magazine, which proves that “wonks” have varied tastes in their beach reading. I wasn’t particularly taken with the recommendation of Politics and Strategy: Partisan Ambition and American Statecraft (thanks, but not quite what I had in mind for lying on the beach in Galicia) so instead skipped to the suggestion of Thomas Ricks, a contributing editor for Foreign Policy and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Novelist David Ignatius is his darling.

What should foreign-policy wonks read on the beach this summer? I’d say the complete works of Ignatius, which amount to a grand tour of the Middle East. Start with Agents of Innocence (Lebanon, and worth the price of admission just for the stomach-churning chapter in the middle about being an Israeli agent in Syria) and work your way with him through the region. You won’t sleep any better, but you’ll learn a lot. And you will be entertained… As it happens, the other day I ran into an American diplomat who is an expert in the Middle East and strongly recommended Ignatius’s previous novel, The Increment, about Iran.

But more authenticity means less escapism. A stomach-churning chapter, written by someone in-the-know is as close to reality as you can get. That ephemeral divide between crime-writing fiction and reality became tragically evident in Norway this summer. The murders carried out by Anders Behring Breivik were all the more shocking for having been taken place in a liberal society, but his warped ideas had already been outlined in fiction. Sverre Olsen, a character created by Norwegian crime-writer Jo Nesbø, claimed, “Europe is threatened by mass immigration and the resultant chaos, deprivation and struggle for survival… Those of you who pretend that there is not a racial struggle going on here are either blind or traitors.”

Nesbø told the New York Times that “the Norwegian self-image before 22 July 2011 [the date of Breivik’s murders] was that of a virgin – nature untouched by human hands, a nation unsullied by the ills of society.” It’s a self-image that wasn’t reflected in fiction and not just in Nesbø’s own novels. Aggression against immigrants have featured in the plots of other Scandinavian crime writers like Henning Mankell, while neo-Nazis featured prominently in the trilogy by Stieg Larsson.

Beach reading shouldn’t have any place in our studies, however authentic the depiction, but fiction can lead us to question fact. It can open our minds to other possibilities that we can either prove right or wrong. No, there aren’t any trains in Iceland, but yes, there is a rise in far-right parties in Scandinavia.

The motto of the London School of Economics and Political Science (the lead college for my Politics and IR course) is rerum cognoscere causas – to know the cause of things – and whereas fiction can never be a reliable source, it can be a springboard towards discovering other facts. If American diplomats recommend a certain novel about Iran, then there is no harm in reading it and try to uncover why they did. If a Swedish crime writer pins a novel on tensions around immigration then maybe take a look at the rise of the far-right Nationaldemokraterna (National Democrats) in Sweden.

And what about a bit of sun-basking escapism? For me that now means totally avoiding any writer or character than might intersect my studies. “Ah, Monsieur Poirot. Enchanté.”

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