As a fiction writer, I’ve often thought and written about why people read fiction. Recently however, I’ve noticed a shifting pattern in my own reading towards non-fiction. In the last year, a quarter of all the books I’ve read have been non-fiction rather than fiction and, what’s more, the non-fiction constitutes a higher percentage of the books I really liked. On a five star system they have consistently rated in the 4.5 range while the more numerous fiction books rate a full point lower.
I wondered if this was simply a matter of small sample variation but when I looked back on my reading from the last few years, I find that this has been a consistent pattern. My consumption of non-fiction has grown and my enjoyment of it has consistently been higher. Moreover, looking at my must-read-next shelves (yes, yes, I know, ridiculous to have multiple shelves of must-read-next — when there can only be at most three next reads), I find that nearly half of those books fall into the non-fiction category and when I go to my bookstore wish lists I find the percentage is even higher.
What is wrong with me?! Am I reverting to my late adolescence (i.e. university years) when non-fiction made up the majority of my books?
Well, maybe. I think, in part, I have regressed or maybe progressed in the last few years. As I’ve said elsewhere, we read (or at least I do) fiction to learn more about other people — to get inside the point of view, the thoughts and emotions of the other. Sometimes it is the only real access we have to that intimacy. Certainly when we are living outside a good relationship, it is.
Non-fiction, on the other hand, operates on a different level. Certainly it has a point of view, the author’s. He or she is making an argument, not to allow us inside their heads and hearts, but to try to persuade us to believe or accept some interpretation of the facts. It is never, in Dragnet terms, just the facts but always the way they are presented and ordered that makes non-fiction compelling.
And it is our response to those facts that generates those delightful arguments, not only with the author but also with our own preconceptions and established theories of the world. Just as good fiction can create an emotional gestalt shift, so can well researched and cogently argued non-fiction. Presented with a different way of thinking about the world, we are forced, even if we reject it, to rearrange our own thinking. To get inside our own heads in a way we never would without it. And only books can do that — present sufficient force to move the unmoveable object that is a closed mind.
If fiction teaches us about other, non-fiction teaches us about ourselves.
But that’s ten minutes.