“This is the non-fiction floor, right?”
“Yep.” (I work at a public library). What comes next is often predictable.
“Great. I’m not really into fiction.”
There are many variations on this. Fiction is a waste of time. Isn’t the real world interesting enough? Why read something that’s just made up?
I’ve spent a couple of decades reading at least three novels for every non-fiction book. But over the past five years that ratio has been reversed for me. I’m not sure why. I’m just more drawn to non-fiction more these days. It might change later, and I’ll follow whatever stories command my attention.
This surprised someone at a book club I visited recently. “Can you tell everyone why it’s so important to read fiction?”
“What makes you think it is?” I said. “I’m actually reading a lot more non-fiction these days. Just think about it, what makes you say that it’s important?”
This was flabbergasting to that fine human being. I wasn’t passing judgment, just trying to start a conversation. And wow, did it ever. Lines were drawn, bayonets were fixed, and I wound up being an inept but intrigued moderator as I sat on the sidelines.
I’ve never really felt the need to add my voice to this particular discussion (fiction vs non-fiction), which has appeared on Book Riot itself a few times. But that night, that book club really made me try to figure out how I think about it, which is what I’d like to share today.
Okay. Imagine that tonight, you tell me a story. It is unequivocally the most inspiring story I’ve ever heard, we even prove it with some magic theorem. And now I’m galvanized into new and beneficial actions and thoughts. This isn’t a stretch. I believe the best stories, regardless of the medium, will make us want to be better people. Whether we subsequently act, so as to become better people, is another story.
One week later, you tell me that you made the story up. Or worse, maybe it was something you lifted out of a novel. Or worse, maybe you lifted it out of a mass market paperback you bought while standing in line at the grocery store.
Have I lost anything? Should I feel cheated? Does the story have less power for being invented? Is the story as real? Does it now contain less truth?
Not for me. It wouldn’t matter if it came from Eckhart Tolle or Herman Melville or Lawrence Wright or Philip Gourevitch or V.C. Andrews. There are still things I remember from The Baby-sitters Club, for Heaven’s sake, that informed some of the choices I made as a kid in junior high school.
Phillip Pullman said, “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
For me, it’s not about the call numbers on the spines, or non-fiction versus fiction. It is not about the format. For that matter, it’s not even about the books. The stories and ideas are what I crave and love and need. Phillip Pullman spoke truly and well. I have no idea who I would be without the stories I hear and read. From books, from friends, from blogs, from the radio, from potentially every person I encounter.
I hear or read a story. I react. There is no other way. And so I learn something in the process.
You can do the same, we can discuss it with each other, and now we know something new about each other.
We can read the exact same words as we trek from Texas to Montana with Gus and and Call, or endure the torments of the road with Sancho and his Don. We can read the latest stomach-churning details in the latest Palahniuk novel, and maybe I’m laughing but you’re cringing. And now we know something. What could be the downside to that? What could be the downside to stories?
I don’t believe there is one. In any case, there is no way to make sense of our lives, except through stories. Even a stupid column of numbers in an Excel spreadsheet can tell a story.
You’re not the sort of deviant who’s going to claim that Excel is more enjoyable than fiction, are you?
I’ll wrap it up with Neil Gaiman’s words on our obligation to imagine. Thanks for reading, fellow bookworms.