Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Thrill of Reality

Oscar Wilde famously said, "Life imitates art."  As apt as this aphorism may be, there are still others who put a premium instead on reality as a vehicle for artistic expression.  So, conversely, Kierkegaard said, "Life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced."

To that end, I have been reading a lot of non-fiction. Histories, memoirs, autobiographies, textbooks, etc.  I just finished The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larsen, and am moving next to My Lucky Life, Dick Van Dyke's autobiography.  I also have, on my shelf at the moment, a history of coffee, a biography of Nikolai Tesla, a basic history of Islam, and a book about sex, written by women for women in the candid style which so many of us appreciate.  There is something about non-fiction which I find compelling.

It may be that I simply need a change of pace.  When I was in high school, I wanted to be a teacher.  An English teacher, to be precise.  I read everything I could get my hands on (and then some) and never picked up non-fiction unless required to by a teacher.  Non-fiction just did not have the pull that fiction did then, when most of it was about experiences felt deeply by the characters and exposed their passions and most secret feelings.  I was a girl who felt deeply, and thus my reading material should reflect that, I reasoned.  Or maybe reason got left out of it and I just intuitively picked things that suited my needs at the time.  I read a lot of classics (think Austen) and genuinely enjoyed my English homework.  I began actually writing, and thought seriously about a career in such a mode.  The most exciting thing about the end of the school year was the summer reading list.  Even if I didn't enjoy the novels on the list, I enjoyed having a list off of which to pick my reading materials.  I made my own lists and tried to read things considered required reading for college and a well-rounded education.  Little did I realize I was leaving out a major segment of thought.

Then I became a history major.  I know this is a common theme in my writings, but being a history major changed my whole life and my perceptions of the world.  In this particular case, it opened me up to the world of non-fiction.  Soon, the novels in my English classes failed to grab me in the way they had when I was in high school.  It was a chore to read most of the novels for those classes, and I would pine for my history reading.  One possible explanation was that the history reading was simply more interesting at the time and that my teachers picked novels I didn't enjoy (I will never read another D.H. Lawrence novel for as long as I live if I can help it.  I detest the man and his repetitive, overblown writing style).  Another is that I just needed reality to help me escape from my own reality, instead of an imagined world instead.

And here I am, six months after graduating from college, and I've only read a few novels.  In fact, most of the novels I've enjoyed the most are for kids.  I have never been able to free myself from the lure of late elementary school, early middle school novels.  I always return to them.  Instead, I'm reading non-fiction, delving into other people's lives and learning new (and occasionally useful) information.  The drive to fill the void of the intellectual calisthenics of college is apparently having quite a strong effect on me.  I am gathering the proverbial rosebuds, but instead of novels, this time, I'm gathering pieces of information and stringing them together to make a beautiful and eclectic necklace.  And I don't really care that at this point it's only for decoration.

I still pick up novels.  I'm still looking for something that will hook me in completely and irresistibly.  There is nothing quite like a novel that sucks you in and keeps you reading until it's finished.  I miss the thrill of picking up a book and not putting it down until I've finished it.  And so I pick up novels.  I search for that feeling, and usually end up discarding them after only a few chapters.  It's like first love.  You have to feel that spark and electricity, or else the pursuit loses its charm and magnetism.  And I drop it.  Quickly.

Until the time when I can again find the inescapable fixation of a truly great novel, I will continue to read my non-fiction.  And thoroughly enjoy a different take on the same reality.  In that way, non-fiction is just as legitimate an art form as fiction, because isn't the point of fiction to present a fresh perspective and to challenge our entrenched notions of ourselves and the world around us?  In this case, non-fiction is up to the task.  I read it with gusto.

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