As it's been shown by each of the posts above, there are a number of ways that literature can convey history. Post #4 speaks most directly to my own ideas about literature or books as a cultural artifacts which contain, express, explore and examine a people's way of thinking and relating to the (social and natural) world.
From a historical perspective, we can look at every writer as an example participant in a particular culture, thinking and writing the thoughts of his or her people. These thoughts change over time, naturally, and in this way subsequent phases of literature become a record of changing modes of thought.
Literature shows not only the world around us but the way we view that world. Literature shows the ideas and culture of a people. The way we think about something comes across in our writing. Take To Kill a Mockingbird for instance. The culture and ideals of the time were changing. The author shows both the old ideas and the new ideas about racism and segregation. She shows how these ideas clash and violence it can lead to.
No one is able to leave their history completely behind them. It shapes who we are and how we think. These ideals are then reflected in the way we write and what we choose to write about.
The history of a people can be reflected in its literature in the sense that literature often preserves the values of different eras, the stylistic traits of different periods, the typical concerns of different ages, and changes in the language in which a people's literature is written. Often, the canonical literature of a people reflects the kinds of writing most highly prized at different stages of history.
A society's history is reflected in literature based upon the fact that their actions, many times, are a result of what is happening around them in the society which they live in. For example, in Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the prejudices of a small town are spoken of freely and honestly. The history associated with racism is eloquently provided and illustrated. The history, and mentality, of the South is reflected in the literature.
Napoleon Bonaparte once posed this question, "What is history but a fable retold?" Since history is the recording of events and their importance by the people who have been in control of these events, there can be variations or interpretations of these "facts and events." (The most comprehensible example of this statement of Bonaparte's is Russian history, which has been revised several times.)
But, literature--the recordings of the human experience, the spirit and heart of people--is an everlasting and universal truth, and therefore, accurate history. Underscoring these ideas, the French philosopher, art critic, and writer, Denis Diderot [1713-1784] wrote,
The truest history is full of falsehoods, and your romance is full of truths.
That is a wonderful question. Think of a book like a jar for storing butterflies. You go out and collect all the butterflies you find around you and put them in the jar. And hundreds of years later people can see all the different colours and shapes that you found and they will know all about the butterflies from your time and place.
In the same way a book can preserve the world in it's freshest colors which never fade. On my shelf I have a book by a man called Herodotus, he was a Greek, born 2,500 years ago, but I can reach the book down and he will tell me his first-hand stories of the wars of Alexander The Great. His voice, preserved on the page, is a voice from two and a half millennia ago, but it hasn't aged or changed! It is almost unbelievable. And as I listen to him, I can learn the things that he thought were right and wrong or maybe just the things he liked to do on a Friday night.
And as we read different books by different authors for the same era, we get a more and more complete understanding of who these people really were.