Learning from fiction

Earlier this week, the NYTimes published a blog entry about scarlet fever, specifically that Mary Ingalls, sister of Laura Ingalls Wilder, did not go blind from scarlet fever. I didn’t read much of the Little House on the Prairie series when I was younger, but it was clear from the post and the responses that a lot of people had grown up scared of scarlet fever, largely because of that book. It got me thinking about books and how we learn little facts. For example, I read the Mrs. Pollifax series when I was in high school. In The Elusive Mrs. Pollifax, they visit [spoiler] a goose farm in Bulgaria where foie gras is produced. Years later, the topic of foie gras came up at a dinner party, and I blurted out something about a lot of it being produced in Bulgaria. As the words left my mouth, I realized that I had never checked that for myself, I just assumed it was true because I read it in a book. (It is true, and the blurting also led me to discover that a friend at the party was also a Mrs. Pollifax fan). Working in a historic house museum, I sometimes get frustrated with the inaccuracies that visitors are sure are true. But at the same time, I understand – it’s the vivid ideas that grab us, whether because we’re scared or because it’s a fasciniting glimpse into something that is not our daily life. And massaging food down the throat of a goose was not remotely my daily life.


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