Rewriting History

Literature, history, and some recommendations

Rewriting History

I recently read the novel HHhH by French author Laurent Binet.

I chanced upon this book and dove in knowing virtually nothing about it. Turns out it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. Don’t you love it when that happens?

HHhH stands for the German phrase “Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich,” which translates to “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.” Heydrich refers to Reinhard Heydrich, a senior Nazi official and a primary architect of the Holocaust.

In 1942, two resistance fighters (one Slovakian and one Czech) assassinated Heydrich in Prague in what was known as Operation Anthropoid. This much is true.

The car in which Heydrich was assassinated

And so the book is, in one sense, a historical fiction novel. But it’s also much more than that, because it dives very deep into the meaning of those terms: historical and fiction.

The narrator of the book alternates between recounting the story of Operation Anthropoid and describing the process by which he is writing about it. How, he asks, is he expected to write a true-ish novel about events that took place many decades ago? The characters must be fictionalized versions of the real ones. The writer must take liberties with the reality of what occurred, for there is so much that can never be verified, so much that has been forever lost to history. Even some of Binet’s details that are based on historical evidence are contradictory or subsequently disproven.

This is meta fiction unlike any I’ve ever read. It simultaneously tells a fascinating story of something that did occur and forces us to ask thought-provoking questions about the retelling of history (questions that I, for one, rarely thought about before):

How much of what we know of the past is what actually happened versus what has been embellished? What is appropriate to leave out in the telling of history? When is it appropriate to fill in the gaps (with invented scenes or dialogues) to ensure that the important parts are kept in? Where does one draw the lines around cause and effect? In other words, how much of the cause of historical events do we need to include? What do we owe to the dead in the telling of their stories? Do the dead actually care? (In response to this last question, Binet answers no, in one of my favorite passages of the book.)

I encountering similar questions through Salman Rushdie’s fantastic recently-released memoir Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder. This book dives into his experiences after he was attacked in 2022, when he was nearly killed and was blinded in one eye. Unlike HHhH, this story is recent and written by the victim of the attack himself. Yet even here, there are gaps, there are questions, there are ethical storytelling considerations…

Following the attack, Rushdie never interacted with his assailant. Yet in the effort to make sense of the terrifying events that had changed his life, and to find closure, he dedicates an entire chapter to a series of imagined conversations with the man (who Rushdie calls “The A”). They discuss The A’s motives, his upbringing, his (lack of) remorse. And in doing this, Rushdie does what Binet did in his novel: he blurs the lines between fiction and reality, creates made-up characters where there were once real people, makes it hard for the reader to differentiate between history and historical fiction (or in Rushdie’s case, memoir or memoiric fiction).

I highly recommend the audiobook, read by Rushdie himself.

Provoking Thoughts

HHhH and Knife both rank up there on the list of books that I’ve found thought-provoking. And while we’re at it, here are a few more:


  • The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene

  • The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher (which I’ve written about here)

  • The Demon in the Machine by Paul Davies


  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

  • Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges (which I previously explored here)

Your Answers

Several weeks ago, I asked readers of this newsletter to submit their own answers to “What’s the most thought-provoking book you’ve ever read?” Not only did I love reading their submissions, but I also discovered a whole bunch of fascinating books I’d never before known.

A selection of their answers are below. Thank you to everyone who contributed!

Some all-over-the-map favorites:

House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski

The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle

The Truth by Neil Strauss

Marissa Troiano

Skeleton Crew, Stephen King

Alessandro Crugnola

Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Matt Hartman

One is The End of Average, by Todd Rose. The other is Conversations with God, by Neale Donald Walsch. I read both at the same time, back in 2020, and they blew my mind. You're probably more interested in the first one, though. Rose shakes many unexplored assumptions about life, society, learning, and exposes just how pervasive average-based thinking is. The book led me to question how we group people, deny opportunities, and conceive of averages that hamper our approach to problems. The three principles of individuality explained here (jaggedness, context, and pathways) have informed many situations I have explored since I read the book.

Federico Escobar

On Writing by Stephen King

Sara Lerner

These days I tend to remind myself of 1984. When a first read it, more than a decade ago, I found it hard to believe that the events in the novel could ever come true. But these days I'm not sure anymore. The "Ministry of Truth" is a reality, but in some countries we call it a different name. And with all the AI and disinformation we might need one… I'm worried that "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past" will make us lazy, and stop being curious and ask questions.

Hugo Galvão

Unexpected and highly recommended from a fantasy category: The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Julia Kim

My freshman calculus book that casually mentioned complex numbers lack order. I argued with my teacher that there is no way you can have 2 known quantities and not be able to say which was larger.

Many years later I accepted the truth. Complex numbers lack order. No term for which the Sq root of -1 is a descriptive non zero factor can be larger or smaller, 1st or last. To get order, you must convert to real number system. Like multiplying, absolute values, and other manipulations.

“Friendly One”

The Bible

Keagan Lloyd Jacobs

Blonde Roots by Bernardine Evaristo and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Luisa Wagner