“Oh, I just don’t have time for fiction.” “I want to read about the Real World.” “Novels are a waste when you could be learning something.” Sentiments like these have infuriated me countless times because my reader’s heart belongs to fiction.

I collect quotes like these that I imagine tossing out like marbles in the face of such arguments, to succinctly defend the inherent value of fiction:
Journalism aims at accuracy, but fiction’s aim is truth. The writer distorts reality in the interest of a larger truth. John L’Heureux
The basis of art is truth, both in matter and in mode. Flannery O’Connor
I write fiction to tell the truth. Pam Houston

But somewhere along the way, I think I developed the opposite bias; I forgot that I might find some truth in non-fiction as well. Last year, when I really struggled with reading some non-fiction, I vowed to mend the gap in the reading fence I’d erected.

Mostly my struggle was with the science-y reading I’d undertaken, but although I do want to make a specific effort to read more books like Jared Diamond’s, Michael Pollan’s, and Norman Doidge’s this year, my ultimate goal is to more naturally include non-fiction of a variety that mimics my eclectic taste in fiction.

When it comes to fiction, quite often it’s the authorial voice that appeals rather than a specific theme; I will read any Barbara Kingsolver novel or any Joshua Ferris novel or any story by Alice Munro because I trust their telling. I’d like to gather some non-fiction writers like that as well.

Well, that’s the long-term plan. But, in the short term, I have a lot of experimenting to do. I read a lot of novels before I discovered The Bean Trees and The Unnamed, and a lot of stories before I read Alice Munro’s Friend of My Youth. I tell myself that it will take some time to find non-fiction faves and, in the meantime, I am dabbling.

So far, this year, I’ve read three non-fiction books (I first wrote non-fiction ‘novels’…you see? I can hardly believe that I’m not reading novels!): a memoir (Tangles), a volume of literary criticism, and something science-y. I’ve already posted my response to Sarah Leavitt’s memoir, and I’ll share briefer responses to the other two volumes below, but I’ve been avoiding my usual note-taking in the early stages of my non-fiction project, so that I’m discouraged from confusing these readings with homework.

Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2000)

The sub-subtitle indicates that this slim volume’s audience is intended to be writers, teachers and students, but I wish it had included readers in there too. It is undoubtedly valuable to writers, particularly those writing personal narrative, who seek advice on how to avoid  the “pits of confessionalism”, “therapy on the page” and “naked self-absorption”. But I think it’s just as interesting to approach Gornick’s observations as a reader.

She is fundamentally concerned with the way in which various writers have cultivated a detached empathy which is necessary for personal narrative to work for the disinterested reader; she illustrates her point using works as diverse as Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” and Smedley’s Daughter of Earth. She also compares and contrasts two works on the same subject (marriage) by two authors (Lynn Darling and Natalia Ginzburg) to demonstrate the ways in which memoir writers can develop a persona to draw readers into their work.

The way in which you receive a personal narrative as a reader is largely influenced by the narrator’s voice and style and many elements affect the reader’s experience (e.g. the adopted persona, the degree of detachment); considering the varying ways in which writers have structured their personal narratives can help a reader identify the style of memoir that most appeals and, possibly, explain why some personal narratives are harder to engage with than others.

Some of the excerpts from the works she considers are quite long, but she does not quote needlessly; she has carefully selected segments which illuminate the observations she is making about these memoirs/narratives. Nonetheless, if you are worried about spoilers (sometimes her reflections reveal an outcome you might not have garnered from reading the specific work in isolation) you might still take away something of value from her commentary even if you skim some of the excerpts that you’d rather discover for yourself, intact and as originally published.

Sean B. Carroll’s Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origin of Species
Houghton Mifflin (2009)

Would the author still recognize it to be a compliment if I were to say that I especially loved his book’s final pages? You know, the small print that most readers probably skip (along with the poetry in A.S. Byatt’s Possession: see I had to get a reference to fiction in here)? But this book’s “Sources and Further Reading” section is perfect for me.

Sure, I love the fact that the text itself reads like a story, with such a compelling narrative thread that, at times, I had the feeling I was reading the novelization of a movie. (Who knew that Darwin was such a terrible student that his family thought he’d be fit for nothing but the clergy? Stay tuned next week, when Darwin takes a holiday.)

Who can argue with entertainment value? And, yet, it’s clear from the supplementary references that the author knows his subject inside-out, well enough to make it fantastically interesting for a novice like me. (I especially appreciate the way that the endnotes are formatted: I actually read them!)

Perhaps I’m giving him a little too much credit; it sounds like the lives of his subjects — Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace, Henry Walter Bates, Eugène Dubois, Charles Walcott, Roy Chapman Andrews, Louis and Mary Leakey — really were fascinating. Maybe it would be interesting even in the hands of a through-and-through academic who has no interest in rhetoric. But I’m not convinced.

If Sean B. Carroll’s intent was to pique my interest in this subject, to get me to peruse those pages of small print to choose my next science-y reads, well, this book was a resounding success. And that comes down to his voice and passion as much as it does to the fascinating lives lived by his subjects.

Thanks for recommending this one, Gavin!

Anyone else reading some good non-fiction these days? Bring it on!