November 30, 2011

"Fiction just doesn't reach me the way nonfiction does."

"Even when nonfiction tries to be engaging by using personal narratives, I often lose patience with the details and just want the writer to get to the abstract point."

What kind of writing reaches you?
Fiction, because of the concrete details about people and things.
Fiction, when it conveys valuable abstract ideas.
Nonfiction, when there is concrete detail about people and things.
Nonfiction, when there are valuable abstract ideas.
  
pollcode.com free polls 

106 comments:

Ralph L said...

Large type.

mccullough said...

Most of his books are philosophy, which is cool. (I'd put Hume's book first, not second). But is philosophy considered "non-fiction" any more than economics, sociology, etc. are "non-fiction."

I used to read almost exclusively philosophy when I was in my early 20s, then read mostly fiction after that. I split between fiction, non-fiction, and economics a lot now. I don't read philosophy anymore.

John Burgess said...

I don't like the choices!

I read both, though perhaps a bit more heavy on the fiction side.

Both reach different parts of my reason, one with fact, one with individualized interpretation of fact. Sometimes the fiction has a different, but no less true, assessment of reality.

RC3 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scott M said...

Fiction.

Fictional narratives about actual events and people have always engaged my interest more than straight book learnin'. That being said, my new year's resolution in 2008 was to read only non-fiction for the whole year. While there's some surprising well-written stuff in that category, fiction seems to hold my interest longer.

Irene said...

My growing reluctance to read fiction coincides with my disinterest in going to the movie theater.

ndspinelli said...

There are simply too many nonfiction books I want to read and they have priority over fiction.

Having a good non public education I read many classics in my youth, for which I'm grateful. I am blessed to have English teacher nuns w/ a love for Shakespeare. And I was doubly blessed for our treks to see Shakespeare @ the theatre in Stratford, Ct. Sadly, that great little theatre is abandoned now..a tribute to public education and feminist English teachers who eschew Shakespeare.

My wife is a lover of fiction, I of nonfiction. That's what makes life interesting.

ndspinelli said...

Irene,

I concur. However, there are good flicks but you have to search for them. The best venue is the Sundance theatre, and you can drink there legally. I've been known to drink illegally in theatres but I know that would not be your cup of tea..as it were!

Robert Burnham said...

Personal narratives do spice up non-fiction, but should be used simply to illustrate a point. And not every point needs a personal narrative.

Many writers, perhaps because they are at bottom frustrated fictioneers, become entranced by vivid narratives and overdo their use. Narratives then become a substitute for analysis and argument.

Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

Apart from government economic reports, I don't think I've read any fiction in at least 20 years.

I read 400 to 1200 pages of history per month, along with all the professional and technical stuff associated with my career. No time to waste on fiction.

Patrick said...

Finished "Unbroken" two weeks ago. I definitely prefer nonfiction for a couple reasons. First, truth can so often be stranger, more compelling and more interesting than fiction simply because it is true. Unbroken fits into this mold, see also: Devil in the White City. Anyone writing a story of Louis Zamperini would never come up with a story of three guys in a life raft on the Pacific for 47 days, and have that be the "easy" part of their journey. Second, I think the abstract principles in nonfiction are more universal. For example, very few are likely to find themselves in a situation remotely like Zamperini's, but most will endure some hardship at some point in their lives. Understanding the basic human qualities that help us survive the worst imaginable also help survive the merely difficult.

Finally, I like nonfiction because it forces the author to find meaning in events, rather than think of an abstract principle and come up with a story that will illustrate it. I think when authors of fiction want to address universal abstract ideas, they manipulate the story to illustrate those ideas. Which isn't all bad, but I still prefer the nonfiction. I think I would write the quoted text exactly the reverse.

Paddy O said...

You need a "both" option.

Because both reach me. I need both.

ndspinelli said...

I see from the Amazon post the professor is "making a list and checking it twice" just like Santa Claus.

She's also channeling Al Haig, "I'm in charge here..@ The White House."

ndspinelli said...

Patrick, I believe we discussed Unbroken a few weeks back. I'm glad you liked it. Perseverance and redemption in nonfiction brightens our souls.

Patrick said...

Spinelli,

I missed the Unbroken discussion, but I will note that since finishing it, I've managed to work it into perhaps the majority of my conversations!

I don't know what's more remarkable, the ability to overcome all of that physical hardship, or the ability to forgive the horrendous treatment. Perseverance and redemption indeed.

Robert Cook said...

The poll should have had an "all of the above" choice, or the option to make more than one choice from the four offered. As presented, it's useless.

Peano said...

What a sophisticated array of choices: Fiction "reaches" you either because of its "concrete details about people and things" or because it "conveys valuable abstract ideas."

Blonde to the bone.

Christopher in MA said...

Patrick - did you enjoy "Devil In The White City?" I found it rather dry, especially for a book trying to put some flesh (as it were) on the bones of the H.H. Holmes story. I would, though, highly recommend Larson's new "In The Garden Of Beasts," which concerns the family of the American ambassador to Nazi Germany in the years prior to the Rohm Putsch.

As far as books, I'm almost exclusively nonfiction, simply because my interests lie that way. And as a writer myself, I find that any sort of fiction inevitably blends into my own work, especially if it's period fiction such as that of the "Alienist" school.

Scott - I owe you an e-mail. Just digging out from a turkey coma, so will contact you later today.

Joe Schmoe said...

Can't vote. I like it for different reasons. I will say the nonfiction is probably more durable for me. Fiction is soooo hit or miss (for me). Same with movies. Either I'll really like a work of fiction (rare) or I'll think it's shit (much more often). Good fiction is hard to do.

janetrae said...

All of the above.

Freeman Hunt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Freeman Hunt said...

Non-fiction with abstract ideas, heavy on philosophy.

In other words, I relate entirely to Jaltcoh's post.

I can do fiction if the writing is exceptionally brilliant or the abstract ideas in it are especially interesting. Having either of those conditions met is extraordinarily rare.

Sometimes it happens though.

A while back there was a post about Hunter S. Thompson retyping The Great Gatsby. I can understand the desire to do that. During one spring break in college I sat down and underlined all of the passages in The Great Gatsby that I found particularly brilliant, not for the ideas but for the writing. In children's literature I have yet to find anything that compares to the writing in The Wind in the Willows. That is Writing.

In high school I read 1984 in a day because I thought the ideas were so interesting.

The Iliad, though I had to read it in translation because I don't know Homeric Greek, broke my heart. That rare thing can happen when both conditions are met.

Dan in Philly said...

I dislike fiction because it's boring. I haven't read fiction for pleasure in years. Once you get the idea of the narrative arc, themes, and characters, which generally doesn't take too long, all that's left is what particular twist the plot might take, which is not worth the kind of time involved in reading a fiction novel.

Biographies and histories are far more intricate in terms of understanding the forces behind the historical characters discussed. It's far more compelling to try to understand what exactly motiviated a character like Robspierre, for example, than any fictional character I have ever encountered.

Jeff with one 'f' said...

I read fiction for emotions and the effect of entering another time and place.

Non-fiction for similar reasons, although only a select few writers can phrase things as touching and inspiring as the best fiction writers. The best fiction writers touch truth that lies beyond facts.

Patrick said...

ChrisinMA, I did enjoy Devil in the White City. I've spent time in Chicago, and loved reading about the City in the early modern times. I thought the Holmes story was fascinating (had not heard of him prior), and enjoyed reading about the architects' struggles to build the White City. I would have loved to see more photos of Chicago from that period. The Holmes portions were well researched and interesting, although you may be correct that it is dry, particularly for a story about a serial murderer.

Surfed said...

The problem with a lot of fiction novels these days is that they are written to read like a movie script. Dan Brown's books are a good example of this. I dislike reading movies. Actually I dislike the movies too.

Scott M said...

I dislike fiction because it's boring. I haven't read fiction for pleasure in years. Once you get the idea of the narrative arc, themes, and characters, which generally doesn't take too long, all that's left is what particular twist the plot might take, which is not worth the kind of time involved in reading a fiction novel.

I'm far more into fiction than non, Dan, but that's as compelling an argument as ever for being the opposite. Speaking of the French Revolution (and the Napoleonic Wars that proceeded it) and having said the above, I'm going to pretend that I never read what you wrote and go back to finishing "Throne Of Jade" by Niomi Novik.

William said...

It's an age thing. Fiction, like pop music, is made for the young or, at best the middle aged. I ocassionally re-read some of my favorite novels, but that's about it. I read such novels in the way one listens to Blondie or the Rolling Stones. The wish to get up and boogie is long gone, but the wish to remember what it felt like to get up and boogie endures.......Fiction presents the self serving lies of the author in an entertaining and/or artistic way. What happened in Hemingway's life bears little resemblance to the life that is presented in his novels. It's very edifying to read, say, For Whom the Bell Tolls as a young man, but the Spanish Civil War was a conflict best narrated by Kafka. Hemingway's version is a lie...Anyway, in later life I've read mostly history. Facts are facts, and for the most part they do not fit into the edifying narratives of our best fiction writers. The noise of history has its beats but there's no melody and certainly nothing that makes you want to get up and dance. One admires fiction writers for their ability to arrange selected facts in such a way as to demonstrate the truth of their thesis that their life was comprehensible.

ricpic said...

Read Paul Johnson. Wonderful capacity to bring big ideas to life by referencing individual lives:

Intellectuals
Modern Times
Creators
Heroes

And many more.

Richard Dolan said...

Really, folks, it's not an exercise in either-or, but and-both.

Jaltcoh's list was from 2010-- nice to see Ann reaching back into the dimmer reaches of blogs-of-old for this post. It's odd to see Jaltcoh's emphasis on philosophical books about how we perceive the world, and then a statement about how fiction doesn't really "reach" him. Fiction, perhaps uniquely, allows for great freedom in exploring the many ways in which people perceive the world differently, to the point where they see different realities. Nagel (the only author on his list for more than one book) is famous for drawing attention to the different subjective and objective perspectives in perception, and it's easy to see his most famous essay (What is it like to be a bat?) as a deliberate blurring of the fiction/non-fiction lines to make a philosophical point. In the same vein, much lit-crit today focuses on how fiction has historically been a means of forging a new understanding of man-in-society -- Greenblatt's book that set off the new historicism took that as its theme (Renaissance Self-Fashioning).

But, hey, different folks, different strokes. Whatever works for you.

Scott M said...

Anyway, in later life I've read mostly history. Facts are facts, and for the most part they do not fit into the edifying narratives of our best fiction writers.

I'm of the same mind, but consider this. As I've gotten older, I've become particularly interested in the bookends of the American experience in WWII, Pearl Harbor and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While facts are facts, to get a purely dry, objective accounting of those facts without being forced to look through a political or contemporary agenda-driven lens seems tough to do. One of the reasons I enjoy fiction, particularly the speculative fiction I most enjoy, is because it can be completely devoid of those lenses. They don't call it escapism for nothing.

ken in sc said...

I read history and biography--which are in essence the same thing.

edutcher said...

Went with #3. Mostly, I read current affairs or history anymore.

Fiction doesn't send me as much as literature. It's hard to get into something contemporary if Saki or Kipling or Poe is what turns your crank.

ndspinelli said...

She's also channeling Al Haig, "I'm in charge here..@ The White House."

Never forget the context. A very rattled Larry Speakes had stumbled his way through a press conference, much like our own Zero decrying Iranian occupation of the "English Embassy".

Haig understood the world had to know the place wasn't coming apart at the seams.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

I enjoy historical fiction, heavy on the historical accuracy. I'm looking forward to this book: Conqueror Science fiction and alternate universe fiction. Biographies are interesting.

Non fiction, anything in the scientific fields: anthropology, archeology, geology, paleontology. I just bought this interesting book Roadside Geology of Northern California. There are other editions for other geographical areas.

Regular fiction. I can take or leave. Murder mysteries and more of the older classical fiction. New stuff is just rehashed plots over and over. Once you've read one Clive Cussler or Sue Grafton: you've read them all. But....sometimes we just need the fluff to distract the mind before sleepy time.

Freeman Hunt said...

A lot of the most popular writing right now is so terrible that I don't know how anyone can stand to read it. It's atrociously bad. Shockingly bad. Do people like it because their taste has been shaped by television? Television is mostly terrible. Maybe people get used to it.

Henry said...

Most modern fiction seems sloppy, melodramatic, and predictable. Actually so does most modern non-fiction -- of the Blink/Perfect Storm/Into Thin Air variety.

I flip-flop between narrative history and analytical history, with some cultural history in the mix. I've learned to avoid pop-history and pop-sociology written by ex-journalists. There's only so much glibness a person can take.

The best book I've read this year is Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes.

ricpic said...

Hemingway's version [of the Spanish Civil War] is a lie.

Hemingway was a great artist but a standard leftist mediocrity (like the overwhelming majority of artists) when it came to taking sides politically.

Richard Dolan said...

I've recently been reading Marjorie Garber's book, the Use and Abuse of Literature (2011). (She teaches Shakespeare and related stuff at Harvard.) Her reasons for writing it relate to the subject of this post.

She begins with two factoids, one from an NEA study in 2002 drawing on census results and reporting that only 45% of adults said they had read any fiction in the prior year, only 12% any poetry and only 4% any plays. (Reading, for purposes of that study, included listening to books on tape, but not watching a film.)

The second was from a Harris poll of 2,500 adults in 2005, asking about their 'favorite book.' After the Bible, for men the answer was Lord of the Rings; for women, Gone with the Wind. The rest of the list was Harry Potter, Steven King's The Stand, Atlas Shrugged, Da Vinci Code, To Kill A Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye.

Part of the point of Garber's book is to explore why nothing that would be on anyone's idea of the canon is on that list, and how the idea of 'literature' has changed over time (including the very meaning of the word). To Kill, Catcher and Atlas all seem to be a reflection of what the poll-responders read in high school or college -- an attempt to offer as a 'favorite book' something that might have a little weight and thus sound less embarrassing. But if so, in school those same responders presumably read more serious stuff, yet they couldn't bring themselves to name them. Amazing.

Jaltcoh's comment that fiction doesn't really "reach" him is an instance of what Garber is writing about.

Dan in Philly said...

Here's an interesting idea for a question: If you (like me) far prefer non-fiction to fiction, what fiction do you think best satisfies you?

Speaking for myself, as I said I hardly ever read fiction just for fun, but I've been working through the "St John's University" list of fiction just out of curiosity, and

1) I find most of Shakespeare interesting not in terms of casting any real insight into history, but in terms of playing with what motivates people he's quite good at drawing it out and dramatizing it. What a shock, someone likes Shakespeare, I know :)

2) I found "War and Peace" to be interesting, but maybe because when I read that I knew almost nothing about the Russia of the Napoleonic era. Maybe that would change now, though.

3) I enjoyed "Mobey Dick" somewhat, mostly because it really didn't read as a fiction book for most of it, but as a detailed description of life at sea and the people who went to sea in that age.

4) The only parts of "Gone wtih the Wind" I enjoyed dealt with what was going on in Atlanta during the seige, which I found fairly gripping. Most of the rest seemed more like a scholcky romance to me.

5) If you can categorize works like "The Sagas of the Icelanders," "Beowulf," and "The Illiad" in fiction, which I wouldn't, I would have to admit I really enjoyed them. I wouldn't include them because I didn't enjoy them in the same way I once enjoyed reading fiction.

Freeman Hunt said...

Now it occurs to me that I've forgotten about all of the popular non-fiction books. Most of those are awful too. I forget that they exist. Their existence is wispy, like paper trash blowing by in the wind.

Freeman Hunt said...

Writing is not, I suppose, any different than other art though. Ever been in a coffee shop where the local art on the wall was so bad that you felt compelled to avert your eyes from it? How many times does one begin a movie recommended by someone else only to turn it off in a near internal rage or be relegated to suffering seethingly through it out of obligation?

Most art of any type is bad, but the good, of any type, is worthwhile.

Scott M said...

Dan

I'm going to give you a suggestion for a piece of fiction which encompasses Shakespeare (both analysis of and The Bard himself), both the Illiad and the Odyssey, as well as HG Wells and such. All rolled up into an incredibly well-written fictional narrative spanning well over 1000 years.

Dan Simmons - "Ilium"

I think you might enjoy it.

Henry said...

5) If you can categorize works like "The Sagas of the Icelanders," "Beowulf," and "The Illiad" in fiction, which I wouldn't, I would have to admit I really enjoyed them.

If I were to compose my own list of most influential books, Beowulf would be one at the top (Heaney translation). In its own way it speaks to the problem of free will and terrible beauty and strangeness of life. The fatalism at its core gave me a different framework for thinking about mortality.

Dan in Philly said...

Henry, your comments about Beowulf take the words right out of my mouth. Considering the nihilistic implications of materialism and the fact that the modern world is only now awakening to them after having killed God (as Neitche said so preciently), I forsee the fatalism of Beowulf to be more relevant than ever in the coming decades.

I have quoted it before to those who are not familiar with it without citing it as my source, and they have agreed with my words and have been impressed with my understanding of the world and my ability to put it so well. They do not realize their worldview is actually very very old, and has already been worked out and found somewhat wanting.

Dante said...

I read MSM articles. Does that count as fiction?

Dan in Philly said...

Scott M - I shall read it.

Scott M said...

Greek gods, Eloy, robots, dinosaurs...you'll love it :)

Sally Bennett said...

Part of the problem with fiction is the consolidation of publishing houses during the past few decades, so that the Big Six control 90% of the traditionally published novels, with the goal of producing a predictable product that satisfies the bean counters. Self-publishing and small presses can counteract this move toward predictability a little, but you have to wade through a lot of samples or reviews to find anything worth reading.

If you want to try a novel that's out of the ordinary, there's Homegrown Muse, available through Ann's Amazon affiliates button. This deals with controversial attitudes toward homosexuality, age, gender, race, and environmentalism.

John Burgess said...

A (Science) Fiction writer established a law that bears his name: Sturgeon's Law. It reads, "Sure, 95% of SF is crap, but then, 95% of everything is crap."

As far as I can tell, that's still the truth.

I read non-fiction that is more distorted from reality than a lot of the SF I read. Political agendas grind like rusty axes in the 'history' of folk like Howard Zinn. What's to be gained in reading that other than gaining some insight into an 'alternative view' of history?

I'm interested in most of the sciences, though modern math has gotten beyond me. But biology, medicine, anthropology, archeology, paleontology, astronomy, geology, etc. can always capture my attention, if only to learn what has changed since I first learned them.

Fiction, from writers like Pynchon, Gaddis, DeLillo, et al. are certainly worth my time and effort. I can be made happy with a good story, preferably well-told, but the story itself can sometimes serve e.g. Olaf Stapledon. His 'Last Man' books have next to no plot, but spew ideas by the paragraph like a Roman candle, ideas worth pondering that other writers, like Philip Jose Farmer converted into full novels or series of novels.

Some of the 'canon' still bears reading, I think, but sometimes I reach a point where the past is too foreign a country, where styles that once soothed now only irritate (I'm looking at you, Henry James).

Tibore said...

I normally don't find fault with things the professor posts here in her blog, but today I have. That poll seems far too limited. I've never seen a 4-way false dichotomy until today, but there's one right there in all it's shining glory.

I like fiction for both the reasons listed. Abstract ideals in classic works like Moby Dick to absolute pulp, like much sci-fi out there really resonates with me when written well. But, I also like concrete details in fiction as well; I was one of the few geeks who not only read the "extraneous" material in Moby Dick (the stuff about the whaling industry, and so on), but thought the context and atmosphere provided was too important to skip. Both are reasons to really dig fiction.

But I also like non-fiction for both reasons cited. Concrete detail about people and things is what makes non-fiction fascinating, whether it's personal narrative ("Who They Were: Inside the World Trade Center DNA Story: The Unprecedented Effort to Identify the Missing" was a fascinating read for me) or impersonal (some of the best understanding of the September 11th hijackers comes from the "canon" of books: "The Looming Tower", "Ghost Wars", "Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America", etc.), historical (Bruce Catton's "This Hallowed Ground"), or just plain whimsical (any number of off-beat cooking books I've found). And abstract ideas also make nonfiction soar. Read Joseph Epstein's article (not book) "Whose Country ’Tis of Thee?" for an example of such prose.

None of the poll options exclude any of the other ones. And it smells faintly of coerced choice to make it out as such (although I'm willing to concede that it might be due to a limitation of the polling app itself, rather than a conscious attempt to restrict. At least I hope it is).

Robert Cook said...

"Most art of any type is bad, but the good, of any type, is worthwhile."

Or, as immortalized by science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, who, when asked by an acquaintance how he could write "that science fiction, 90% of it is shit," replied:

"90% of everything is shit."

This is now known (and often quoted) as Sturgeon's Law.

ndspinelli said...

edutcher, You obviously have a different view of Al Haig than do I. It would have been more comforting for myself and many others if one of the kitchen help were in charge.

Haig took over United Technologies after leaving govt. One of the big reasons was UT wanted to get military contracts, particularly Pratt&Whitney engines, where my old man worked. Haig did get them a lot of military work but they lagged behind w/ commercial engines just when airline deregulation made that a gold mine. Haig was a bozo..a dangerous narcissistic buffoon.

Robert Cook said...

I see John Burgess beat me to the punch by two minutes!

Dan in Philly said...

Robert & John: There's actually a great reason to read crappy Sci Fi, just as there's a great reason to look at crappy art. When masters do it, you get an effect on yourself which you can't always decribe and don't really understand. If you want to know how they accomplish this, you go to the hacks.

The hacks know, at least somewhat and sometimes very well, what they are trying to do, which is the same things generally the masters are trying to do. Since they do it so ineptly, you can easily see all their tricks and methods, and with a little study you can start to recognize the same techniques in the great forms of art or literature.

While this leads to a less satisfying and a far more jaded view of art and literature, it is a very enjoyable experience to be able to stare at the work of a great creator and strip down their basic components with just the power of your own mind. It's the only thing which keeps the critics going every day. To be quite frank, going down that road is the main reason why I don't bother reading fiction anymore.

Patrick said...

I'm interested in real inspirational studies that teach me something well about lifes difficulties.

I found a young woman's life in Burma story one such tale. Always on the lookout for others.

Christy said...

For me it is a function of age. Non-fiction interests me more now. Do you think that after a certain point we know all the plots, and all the variations of plots, so that it takes an exceptional story teller to engage us? (I second the recommendation of Simmon's Ilium)

DBQ, The Roadside Guide to Arizona made a road trip across the state fabulous. Highly recommend the series.

SeanF said...

I read both, but I seem to find myself favoring fiction lately. Not sure why.

By the way, am I the only one who finds that paragraph confusing? Is the final sentence supposed to say "Even when fiction tries to be engaging..." rather than nonfiction?

Christopher in MA said...

Well, since I have a bit of a moment here, let me expand. I got most of my fiction reading out of the way when I was a boy - "1984," "Animal Farm," "The Road to Wigan Pier" (my grandparents were big into Orwell), the Holmes stories (which I still love), Beatrix Potter, Milne's Pooh stories, &c. I was force-fed Melville and Hawthorne in school and hated them. I still try to reread "Morte D'Arthur" at least once a year, and I enjoyed "The Alienist."

But almost everything I read now is nonfiction and / or biographies. The new Cleopatra bio, "Eisenhower: The White House Years," Bill Bryson's "Home," a pocket bio of Chester Alan Arthur, and so on. I specialize in Victoriana, especially in matters like fads and crime.

The other reading I do is directly connected to my own writing, so I have a large collection of books concerning early Hollywood and silent films, as wellas a large collection of "Motion Picture Magazine" issues from the 1910s. But that's reading for information and pleasure.

I would recommend two books to the commentariat - "Cleopatra: A Life" by Stacy Schiff and "Inventing the Victorians" (which ought to be subtitled 'why everything you think you know about them is wrong') by Matthew Sweet. The latter came out in 2001, but I came across it the other day while cleaning out my bookshelves and decided to read it again.

And since the categories of mystery and hack writing have been brought up, check out my own silent film novel "The Director's Cut: A Theda Bara Mystery." I like it. . .but then again, I wrote it. YMMV.

janetrae said...

The perfect storm: Just ordered Christopher's book through Ann's Amazon link for my new Fire. Looks good.

ndspinelli said...

Patrick, Along the lines of Unbroken, I suggest Comfort Woman. That was the term used for Korean sex slaves systematically raped by Japanese soldiers. It's tough..but inspirational.

Ralph L said...

I'm far more into fiction than non,[snip] Speaking of the French Revolution (and the Napoleonic Wars that proceeded it)

I'll say.

Ralph L said...

Korean sex slaves systematically raped by Japanese soldiers. It's tough...
Even worse when the big-dicked Americans came in the 50's. A local man wrote a book about his Korean War experience, complete with the men lined up for a go at a few women. At least we paid [someone] for our pleasure.

Scott M said...

DOH!

That'll teach me to take phone calls in the mind of a stream of consciousness. LOL! The book even talks about the "terrors" after the revolution. This is in the middle of the British war against Napoleon.

(prostrating)

Michael said...

Freeman Hunt: If you love the Illiad you might try Christopher Logue's "War Music" which is his rendition of one of the books of the poem. Very powerful re-telling but not a translation.

Indigo Red said...

As a boy, I read fiction. Now I read non-fiction to find out what the hell happened that got us into this mess while I was reading fiction.


I'll never forget what my HS English teacher taught us about the difference between fiction and non-fiction - fiction may or may not be true, but you're not expected to believe it; non-fiction may or may not be true, but you are expected to believe it.

And cookbooks are fun to look at.

Jason (the commenter) said...

Since I'm reading a blog that admits to having a bias, as opposed to a newspaper like the New York Times which pretends it doesn't, I'd have to say I prefer non-fiction.

Joe said...

On every annoying thing with non-fiction is reading an engaging book only to realize more than halfway through (or even longer if the author is "good") that the author is either a crackpot or has been masking a very heavy bias and has been carefully and subtly manipulating the facts. It's even more aggravating when the book has been endorsed by "experts" (who you now suspect never read the damn thing.)

Carol said...

Lately I've been all history and biography, but do like fiction as history too. It's a way to travel back in time, to read good authors writing of their own eras, like Melville or Zola or Dreiser. I get some kind of insight into the past each time I read or re-read good novels or short stories from the past.

Synova said...

I like non-fiction about people. Non-fiction is also good when it's for "work"... ie., learning about something factual. I'm sort of down, atm, on the sort of non-fiction that isn't factual, such as philosophy. But I don't usually care for literature, either, because of the same sort of pretension that bugs me about the non-fictionalized sort. It's not precisely that I feel like my own experience with life is legitimate *enough* but that I seem to have the habit of critically examining the claims made and spending most of the experience annoyed that I can't tell the author how wrong they are.

I prefer science fiction when I want to think. Even bad SF is framed as what-ifs and how does the world or culture work if certain elements are different. I find that I can read authors that I know I disagree with ideologically and philosophically and enjoy the story and even agree that the changes they posit would work the way they suggest they would work. It all has to hang together.

Sort of like engineering.

Some of the more esoteric stuff, the thinking for the sake of thinking, tends, IMO, to miss the "hang together" part in favor of admiring its own internal brilliance.

So if I can read an examination of possible functional alternative cultures, culture clashes or the impact of events or technology on the human condition with a side order of "Oooo... 'sploding spaceships!" then I am a happy camper.

Peano said...

I'm flabbergasted by the many negative views of fiction. Maybe you could benefit from dipping a little deeper into the question "Why read?"

William said...

I'm working towards a grand, unified theory of aesthetics and podiatrics. It seems to me that a poet will always be more attracted to Achilles than to Hector. The poet has Achilles tendonitis and he favors the glorious and shining over the durable and sane. Further the poet sometimes makes glorious and shining that which is perishable and crazy. From his neuroses and hangovers and sad courtship of Zelda, F. Scott Fitzgerald was able to fashion a grand love story, The Great Gatsby. Hemingway was able to spin his eighteen minutes of combat experience and chaste relationship with a nurse into A Farewell to Arms. Tolstoy's grand saga of the varieties of human love in Anna Karenina was all the stronger because he left out the bit about serf raping. Fiction does not present a higher truth, but only the lies which an author wishes to tell to himself and which we wish to share......But as we age, our imagination loses it elasticity and our appetite for mendacity diminishes.

traditionalguy said...

A fascinating history is now available on audible books called, "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World."

This is the stuff of legends, but it has been suppressed by his main victims that included the Russians, Chinese, Japanese, Persians, and Muslims.

A funny thing was that Genghis had all of Europe at his mercy too, but he passed on conquering them because when he arrived he found them to be too poor and too dumb to be worth ruling over.

Christopher in MA said...

Janetrae, thank you. I hope you enjoy the book. If you do, a nice little review on Amazon would be appreciated. If you don't like it, feel free to say so, but I'd prefer you let me know; since I'm nearing the end of the sequel, it would be nice to know what you did or didn't like (and now, no more shilling for my bad self, I promise!).

Another recommendation - "Five Points,' by Tyler Ambinder; a history of New York's most notorious slum, one that was a tourist destination for Dickens, Irving and their cohorts. A little heavy on ethnic statistics at points, but very nicely written.

Peano, I'll read the article. Let me just emphasize that I don't care for much fiction - and almost not at all for the modern stuff - but that's me, and no one should extrapolate from me to make an assumption about the mean.

Ann Althouse said...

@Tibore A poll tends to involve simplification. I try to cover the relevant ground in a way that will be interesting. Pick the closest option and explain in the comments.

J said...

Hume a somewhat predictable A-house Realpolitik choice. A few weeks before his death Hume supposedly told Boswell, "the soul dies with the body".

The rest of the list..looks somewhat Jaredish. As in Loughner.

Peano said...

Peano, I'll read the article. Let me just emphasize that I don't care for much fiction - and almost not at all for the modern stuff - but that's me, and no one should extrapolate from me to make an assumption about the mean.

1. I suggested the video (not article) mainly for those who don't care much for fiction.

2. I didn't say or imply anything at all about the modern stuff.

3. This isn't about the "mean." It's about the unique individual.

Peano said...

Althorse said ... A poll tends to involve simplification. I try to cover the relevant ground in a way that will be interesting.

And you think you covered the relevant ground in favor of fiction with "concrete details" and "abstract ideas"?

Blonde to the bone, through the marrow, and out the other side.

bagoh20 said...

Neither. When it comes to reading, I stick exclusively to Phrenology.

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J said...

During one spring break in college I sat down and underlined all of the passages in The Great Gatsby that I found particularly brilliant, not for the ideas but for the writing.

Fitzgerald's prose is a thing of understated beauty. most 'Mericans, even ones who dimly recall slogging through Gatsby once, don't quite understand Fitzgerald's tragic vision.

bagoh20 said...

Cookbooks are clearly fiction.

bagoh20 said...

""Fiction just doesn't reach me the way nonfiction does."
"Even when nonfiction tries to be engaging by using personal narratives, I often lose patience with the details and just want the writer to get to the abstract point.""


Am I missing something, or is that first sentence backwards? The next sentence seem to reinforce the opposite point. Am I dyslexic or what?

J said...

How do you know an A-house reg-troll is lying?

It's writing in the first person.

Shanna said...

I sat down and underlined all of the passages in The Great Gatsby that I found particularly brilliant

I do not think I have ever underlined anything in a book that wasn't for a class. I really hate marking up books! (truth in advertising, I really didn't like The Great Gatsby in high school. I wonder if I would like it if I reread?)

I enjoy fiction, although I admit quite a lot of is dreck. But as far as writing goes, this is also true of quite a bit of non-fiction as well.

What I read mostly depends on how full my brain is in real life. On a beach vacation, I want to read history and other non-fiction. In the middle of winter, or when I was busy with school or learning new things at work, I want fiction because my brain needs a break.

Freeman Hunt said...

I do not think I have ever underlined anything in a book that wasn't for a class. I really hate marking up books!

My husband hates marking up books too. I love to mark books. Underlines, stars, boxes, comments, questions, they're all there. But not in the books I think my husband might read too. He hates that.

J said...

That's right Byro-shanna, plagiarist-phony-- keep your dress on. Big OP time, AZgrrl. Billy too.

J said...

Whoa. Miss Hunt has a husb.

:|

Underlined books are destroyed books, mo' or less. Worse are those given the sorority girl-with-the- pink -high-lighter treatment. Starting with "Call me Ishmael", and then about 90% of the rest--Trixie may have been underlining, but not reading.

bagoh20 said...

Well, I never read The Great Gatsby, but based on Freeman's comment, I just downloaded it to my Kindle. It will be the first book I ever read in electronic format. I had to start with something, and that seems like a good first choice. Besides, I respect Freeman's opinion more than most people I've actually met.

I rarely read fiction, so I should finish it before the end of the decade.

Freeman Hunt said...

I happen to have that copy of The Great Gatsby here in my living room, so I'll see what I thought was so brilliant at the age of nineteen.

I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men.

...become again that most limited of all specialists, the "well-rounded man.

...one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards savours of anti-climax.
(Of course that would ring especially for a nineteen year old.)

It was a body capable of enormous leverage--a cruel body.

Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it.

...wedging his tense arm imperatively under mine Tom Buchanan compelled me from the room as though he were moving a checker to another square.

...sitting down at the table as if she were getting into bed.

I was conscious of wanting to look squarely at everyone and yet to avoid all eyes.

...fifth guest's shrill metallic urgency out of mind.


That's most of what's underlined in the first chapter. I think that's enough. One gets the idea.

All things the nineteen year old me found brilliant and the slightly older me finds varied, just as one would expect.

Freeman Hunt said...

Whoa. Miss Hunt has a husb.

For nearly ten years now. Yowza.

(And someday I won't think ten years is very long. Imagine, imagine.)

Freeman Hunt said...

I don't know. I'm thumbing through it now and find it depressive and less appealing. So it goes.

No wonder Hunter S. Thompson liked it so much.

Michael said...

Bagoh20. I began reading on a Kindle a year or so ago and got used to it pretty quickly. Perfect for fiction or light reading that doesnt require backtracking. Navigating is not as easy as with physical books and note taking very cumbersome. You will enjoy Gatsby. Fine writing and a great story.

Freeman Hunt said...

Later:

"Look here, old sport," he broke out surprisingly. "What's your opinion of me anyhow?"
A little overwhelmed I began the generalized evasions which that question deserves.


Heh. That's pretty good.

DADvocate said...

For me, it's not a matter of concrete details or abstract ideas. In nonfiction, the events, emotions and outcomes are real. It makes the story more meaningful.

Fiction can be entertaining and enlightening, but the force of the impact is rarely as strong because it's all imaginary.

Shanna said...

I'll see what I thought was so brilliant at the age of nineteen.

I think you just reminded me why I hated that book! Man.

Now I need to check out Heart of Darkness and A Farewell to Arms (actually, I went to Hemingway's house in Key West in August, so I really do want to read some more of his stuff)

J said...

Depp claims HS Thompson did that with Gatsby. I hadn't heard it before. HST was def. more of Hemingway sorts-- Hemingway's booze habit, the occasional ether binge, and whatever else happened to be around.


...wedging his tense arm imperatively under mine Tom Buchanan compelled me from the room as though he were moving a checker to another square.

Tight like that--and reminds one(to those who actually read the book) how the movie-makers botched it. Buchanan 's a WASP-thug. Dern was sort of weak. Redford's alright , and the film looked elegant, but....the cast seemed like from the St Monica playhouse or something.

Freeman Hunt said...

So many things change with age. We read part of the Iliad when I was a freshman in high school. I hated it. Now I'm in awe of it.

Freeman Hunt said...

I think you just reminded me why I hated that book! Man.

Ha ha ha

Henry said...

The first time I read the Iliad (Lattimore) was in college and it was very slow going.

The second time (Fagles), 20 years later, it just about broke my heart.

William said...

There's a scene in a Neil Simon movie where the young man tells the pretty girl that she reminds him of a fictional character called Daisy. The pretty girl replies "Buchanan or Miller?", and the young man is a goner.....Freeman, unlike the Twilight novels, no man will ever lose interest in a girl because she's too much of a Gatsby fan.

William said...

But ixnay on that Iliad thing.

bagoh20 said...

Here in L.A. the wind is whipping up to 80 mph gusts, and the power went out in the middle of this comment an hour ago but here it is now that the power is back:


I find those passages to be a damned good trailer to get me into the book. Maybe I still have a nineteen year old mind.

Simon said...

Call me a philistine, but I read a lot—I spend most of my day reading—and so I rapidly lose patience when I feel that a writer is wasting my time. That problem is especially acute in fiction because fiction's bread and butter is telling you how you get from A to B in a meandering way, but it is possible. Great fiction picks you up and carries you along in a way that you don't think your time's being wasted (Greg Bear, Robert Harris, Tolkien, etc.). Good fiction, you get the sense that your time's being wasted but you're too gripped to give up (horror and suspense, HP Lovecraft stuff, is like this). But with most fiction, ehhhhh. You've got to have a better reason for not getting straight to the point than that the book would be much shorter if you did.

Ann Althouse said...

"That problem is especially acute in fiction because fiction's bread and butter is telling you how you get from A to B in a meandering way, but it is possible. Great fiction picks you up and carries you along in a way that you don't think your time's being wasted (Greg Bear, Robert Harris, Tolkien, etc.)."

Great point, and it works for me as a general critique of fiction. But, thinking again, I'd say that in fiction A and B don't matter. It's all the dragging out material that makes it worthwhile. If the book is good, you'd be better off knowing what B is already so it's not a distraction and you can value everything else.

Shanna said...

But, thinking again, I'd say that in fiction A and B don't matter

I would say the reason so many movies are terrible is because they rush you so from A to B that you miss all that good juicy stuff in the middle.

Scott M said...

So if I can read an examination of possible functional alternative cultures, culture clashes or the impact of events or technology on the human condition with a side order of "Oooo... 'sploding spaceships!" then I am a happy camper.

Then I'm sure you have every Peter F. Hamilton book since the mid-90's in your library. If not, GET SOME. I would recommend starting with the "Reality Dysfunction" but "Pandora's Star" works equally well. The man works in the mode you describe above like Beethoven did in symphony.