Saturday, March 12, 2016

Discovering Nonfiction

 As a toddler, I literally ate books. It's a trait that characterized the rest of my childhood, figuratively. Each new book was so exciting. Each story became engraved on my consciousness as I read it over and over, the same way I watched Disney movies: Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Little Men, A Little Princess, A Wrinkle in Time, Matilda. I still quote and picture scenes from these books from memory. They formed the landscape of my mind and the context against which I measured my life, and still do.

I wasn't as interested in nonfiction. The closest I came was Little House on the Prairie, the autobiography of Rosa Parks, and Anne Frank's diary. Still, I read far more of the American Girl, Royal Diaries, and Dear America series to satisfy my interest in history than I read actual biographies or memoirs. Who wanted to read the truth when I could read about hobbits singing bathtub songs or an imaginary orphan pretending to float down a river as another imaginary character?

Somewhere between the first Harry Potter book and the last, fiction lost some of its magic. I began reading about an ordinary boy who finds out he's a wizard and finished reading about an orphan hero who completes his mythic journey by achieving resurrection and destroying the ultimate evil. The tropes of fiction were laid bare to me, and I don't blame Joseph Campbell (entirely). Even as a child, I insisted that the father in "The Lion King" was "not really dead" because I knew that was not how stories worked. I turned out to be partially right. Stories, even those I loved, became predictable. I stopped re-reading as much. What I gained in compassion and maturity, I lost in wonder.While I still find the familiar tropes of fantasy comforting and I draw no small amount of pleasure from literary analysis, the pure consumption of my early reading days is over.

Then, I discovered nonfiction.

For years, I've thought of nonfiction as "the boring stuff." But by virtually ignoring the boring stuff for the 20-some years of my existence, it turns out I've preserved a pocket of fresh and surprising treats. I don't know the conventions of nonfiction. I don't know the rules, or even if there are rules. It's true that nonfiction causes me to think, but not necessarily in the same way that I think about tropes. Nonfiction, of the type I've been reading recently (The Happiness Project, The True Secret of Writing) blends more seamlessly into my everyday life, so that even if I'm thinking of myself outside the book, it's how the concepts in the book directly affect my life. There is no analytical mediation, unless I consciously impose it. I'm trained to analyze reading, and I've found I'm no longer able to switch that off entirely when reading fiction, but since nonfiction is so new to me, I seem to be able to flip some sort of honeymoon switch.

If I keep reading nonfiction at the rate I'm going, I know the switch will eventually flip back on and the honeymoon will end. I've accepted that. When that happens, I will be a more knowledgeable and hopefully even more compassionate and mature person than I am now. But, for now, I'm teething like a toddler on that convenient cardboard thing.

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