Monday, January 7, 2008

From the Bookshop, January 2008

By Quillhill

I used to read fiction books almost exclusively. The little non-fiction I
did read was mostly related to research for my own novels, and many times
not even the entire book. For whatever reason, non-fiction just didn't
engage me the way fiction did.

My first heavy reading of fiction centered around King Arthur and the Matter
of Britain. The next great focus of my interest was French decadence. Later
I read extensively in magical realism. All along I dipped regularly into
what most of us regard as the classics of literature. In the last year,
through connections such as Estella's Revenge, I have been exposed to and
sampled many different types of fiction that I would not normally have
chosen on my own. And a great deal of my reading time was spent engulfed in

Recently, though, I have stared blankly at the novels on my shelf. I have
begun a few and lost any interest long before the last page. Non-fiction is
what has kept me busy reading, what has primarily engaged me through this
fall and into the winter. I have enjoyed books about Vermeer, the American
Revolution, space, history, politics, early Christianity, and, of course,
books about books. Over the past several years, I have elected to read
non-fiction books more and more often, but this is the first time they have
ever been my preferred reading material.

I cannot explain why I sometimes crave pizza, or chocolate chip cookies.
Usually I satisfy such a craving with the understanding that my body has
communicated an urgent need for some key ingredient in those foods. Neither
can I explain the change in my preferred reading material. Is it a base
dissatisfaction with the quality of modern fiction? Is it a remarkable
improvement in the quality of modern non-fiction? Is it a renewed thirst for
knowledge? Is it a process of aging, an unrecognized shift in outlook toward
life, that what might be has passed, and what is will forever be? My mind, like my body, must know what it needs.

Non-fiction is a record of facts. Writers like Jacques Barzun, John Ferling,
and Peggy Noonan have a talent for turning those facts into stories, of
engaging the reader, of showing us a larger picture and greater meaning.
They allow one to learn the facts almost subconsciously, without having to
study them. Fiction is factual, too--even fantasies about unicorns or
horrors about vampires are constructed on a set of internally consistent
laws. What fiction presents to us that non-fiction cannot is possibilities.

When I write, I use fiction to explore possibilities. What if an act of
treason was actually a tragic misunderstanding? What if a man wanted to live
out loud? What if a woman could transgress the bounds of reality? What if
Jesus fathered a daughter? What if a bookstore was a portal to infinite
possibilities? I read non-fiction to learn about things already known. I
write and read fiction to learn about things yet unknown. For this reason
alone, I will probably always favor fiction.

Non-fiction has likely established itself as something I will continue to
seek out and enjoy. But soon I will read another novel that absolutely
amazes me. My appetite for fiction will be renewed, and so many books that
have been waiting patiently on the shelf will gain my attention. I will
wonder again at what might be.

Pick up a book of fiction today. The possibilities are endless.

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