August 30, 2008

What the nonfiction writer promises the reader.

Watch the whole diavlog, based on Richard Preston's book "Panic in Level 4." I especially loved this segment about a genetic disease that causes people to cannibalize their own bodies. They need to be guarded constantly, lest they bite off their own fingers and so forth. Preston tells us to think of a person who compulsively bites his cuticles or chews the skin off the inside of his lip and then imagine the volume turned way up.

ADDED: About that embedded clip. Preston talks about the nonfiction writer's contract with the reader. I don't think all nonfiction authors are really offering what he says and certainly, as a reader, there's nothing about a nonfiction author's offer to tell the truth that makes me agree to suspend disbelief. So it's not a contract with reciprocal duties. And in some cases, I might want to read someone precisely because I am entertained by the very aspects of the work that are not on the up-and-up. (I'm thinking of Hunter S. Thompson.) In most cases, I just know that to get what I want, I have be alert, looking for lies and distortion.

I read a lot of judicial opinions and political writing, and I'd be a chump if I read that writing with the idea that they had offered to tell it straight and I was therefore bound to accept their assertions at face value. But I'm not a chump, and in fact, for me, most of the pleasure of reading that stuff is looking for the flaws and reading between the lines.


vbspurs said...

Bill Frist!

rhhardin said...

I prefer lit crit. It's not so much reading between the lines as reading the lines in the first place.

It all depends on the author, though.

Stanley Cavell is a nice start. Must We Mean What We Say, a good start in Cavell. Be amazed by Shakespeare.

amba said...

Zimmer has a good science blog, The Loom, and the best thing about it is the Science Tattoo Emporium. I wrote an intro to it on the blog I write for Natural History.

John Althouse Cohen said...

It's not that you actually trust the writer to get it right 100% of the time.

It's that that's what the writer sets out to do, and you're going to hold them to that extremely high standard by scrutinizing what they say. It's an open question how successful either of you will be in this endeavor: you might have a brilliant, complete success (either one of you), or you might utterly fail to reach the truth.

I think this is a pretty great method for gaining an understanding of the world -- much more satisfying than some of the notable alternatives.

Anonymous said...

Once the presentation wanders away from raw data and pure mathematics into subjective analysis and opinion, "truth" leaves the building - if it ever arrived. And that's the truth. Really.

Simon said...

Ann Althouse said...
"I read a lot of judicial opinions and ... and I'd be a chump if I read that writing with the idea that they had offered to tell it straight and I was therefore bound to accept their assertions at face value. But I'm not a chump, and in fact, for me, most of the pleasure of reading that stuff is looking for the flaws and reading between the lines."

Is there any tension, do you think, between the realism in the above-quoted text and your more romantic notion that the court needs to rehear the Kennedy case because of the revelation that the counting heads test missed some evidence? Doesn't your argument for rehearing require accepting at face value the court's tacit assertion that the counting heads test had some impact on the disposition of the case?

rhhardin said...

truth leaves the building


``the brilliant revelation of eternal axioms and hieroglyphics pre-existent to the universe, and which will outlast it.''

Alas, there seems to be an undertone of mockery.

``To construct mechanically the brain of a somniferous tale, it is not enough to dissect nonsense and mightily stupefy the reader's intelligence with renewed doses, so as to paralyse his faculties for the rest of his life by the infallible law of fatigue; one must, besides, with good mesmeric fluid, make it somnambulistically impossible for him to move, against his nature forcing his eyes to cloud over at your own fixed stare. I mean--not to make myself better understood, but only in order to develop my train of thought which through a most penetrating harmony interests and irritates at the same time--that I do not think it necessary, in order to reach the proposed end, to invent a poetry quite outside the ordinary course of nature, and whose pernicious breath seems to unsettle even absolute truths; but to bring about a similar result (consonant, moreover, with the laws of aesthetics, if one thinks it over) is not as easy as one imagines: that is what I wanted to say. Therefore I shall make every effort to succeed in it! If death arrests the fantastic skinniness of my shoulders' two long arms--employed in the lugubrious pounding of my literary gypsum--I want the mourning reader at least to be able to say to himself: "One must give him his due. He has considerably cretinised me. What wouldn't he have done had he lived longer? ''

J. Cricket said...

I'm not a chump either, which is why I read your "poll" results about Miss Wasilla not for their results but for what they say about the geenral readership of this blog: they are rabid McCaniacs who cannot acknowledge the obvious doubts that thinking Republicans have already expressed about McCain's reckless choice.

Simon said...

Heh. For some reason, I read the commenter above's name as True Parrot" and it somehow seems a more apt pseudonym given his output here.

John Burgess said...

'True Parakeet', I think more apt.

rhhardin: the truth is I want never more to see crap like that extract you posted. If I were willing to take half an hour, I could figure out what he was trying to say. Then, in two minutes, I could reduce it to a single, coherent sentence.

But that sentence would turn out to be trivial in its meaning, therefore a total waste of 32 minutes.

blake said...


I used to have to do that in music school. The standard tome was a dense thing written by a fellow named Grout.

There was a full paragraph which people were having a hard time understanding. The translation amounted to "The music is lovelier because you can't understand the words." (It was of Gregorian Chant, and didn't, IIRC, actually address whether the words were comprehensible at the time.)

I was almost dragged into a Masters program because I could write in a way that people could understand, an apparently rare talent for musicians.

Bissage said...

Speaking of nonfiction, that brings to mind an ancient memory.

When I was a little kid, I hated school.

I ended up teaching myself to read, bit by bit, every breakfast by looking at the Sears catalog while eating my cereal.

The Christmas edition was always my favorite.

I liked the hope.

Anyway, that's why I'm always sort of rooting for Bill O'Reilly (and his ilk) not to disappoint me too much.

It's always from a distance . . . but I'm loyal that way.

Stupid, I know.

The Penney's catalog never really grabbed me.

Go figure.

Bissage said...

I hope that wasn't too achingly personal.

Bissage said...

Not that it's ever happened before.

Bissage said...


Asante Samuel said...

Speaking of non-fiction, can you believe Tottenham are the only Premiership side with no points? And they have Chelsea tomorrow?

Bolton, on the other hand, have four points.

Kirk Parker said...

John Burgess,

Spare yourself the trouble--I've already done it. Here's the results:


Beth said...

One reason we were primed to evacuate for Katrina with no real hesitation was that we'd both read "Isaac's Storm," a bit "creative non-fiction" by Erik Larsen. He didn't break any new ground, and he's not even a particularly good prose stylist, but he put together a vivid picture of the 1900 hurricane in Galveston, complete with images of flying roof tiles taking off the heads of people floating past red ant hills and snakes in the waters of the Gulf. I recommend it.

Just a little Gustav sidenote -- I'm viewing the latest update while I take a little break and enjoying a nice bit of comic relief as a sign language interpreter is holding his own, translating the auctioneer-quick delivery of our governor, who packs about 20 minutes worth of info into 10 minutes of talk. Jindal's doing a great job.

Beth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
vbspurs said...

Jindal's doing a great job.

I read that, and whooped out loud. Then I remembered it's not all about politics. A speech shouldn't distract me from the cause of it.

So having said that, best of luck to you and yours, Beth! Hope you saw I was sending you prayers up your way.


Beth said...

Exactly, VB -- it's about people. I'm also really happy with our city council, which was a non-entity last time. We since elected enough new council members to make some changes in that culture, and they've all been on the frontlines for this, and working well with the state, since early in the week.

Anyone who enjoys the fine actress Patricia Clarkson can probably tune into some local NOLA coverage via WDSU or WWL tv online and hear where she got that appealing smoky voice -- her mom, Jackie, is our City Council president.

Richard said...

Ann babbled: But I'm not a chump, and in fact, for me, most of the pleasure of reading that stuff is looking for the flaws and reading between the lines.

I wonder whether she has ever read a literary classic -- maybe something by Charlotte Bronte or George Eliot -- and truly appreciated it.

I know, I know. It's a silly question. The answer is so depressingly obvious ...

vbspurs said...

But I'm not a chump, and in fact, for me, most of the pleasure of reading that stuff is looking for the flaws and reading between the lines.

Ann, Richard's comment highlighted this quote which I had skipped over.

Do you really mean that? Then you could never enjoy most of literature. That's a depressing revelation -- always looking, dissecting, interjecting (mentally), without absorbing the full scope of the work.

The first reading has to be done for the sake of literature. The second to see what you missed. The third what you read, but found niggling.


- Book lovers are made by the first.

- Literary scholars are made by the second.

- Critics are made by the third.

You skipped to Part 3 in Part 1.

Ann Althouse said...

Victoria, you're missing the words "that stuff," which refers to the previous sentence. You and Richard should read more carefully if you love reading as much as you seem to say.

Trooper York said...

Hey play nice. I just got back from the pool and I don't want to have to referee you kids.

Trooper York said...

Why is Janet Reno on blogging heads and why is she on the rigth?

vbspurs said...

Victoria, you're missing the words "that stuff," which refers to the previous sentence. You and Richard should read more carefully if you love reading as much as you seem to say.

Okay, that's fair enough, I apologise, though your tone seems unsually tart today.

But here is my question:

Unlike Instapundit, you don't mention the books you have read recently. I know you're a legal scholar, and you must spend inordinate amount of time on that and your blog (but then, so does he).

But do you read literature or fiction? If so, how do you "suspend" that analytical compartalising and parsing which so characterises you as blogger, and as lawyer?

My father's mother was a lawyer, and she found her artistic outlet in being a balletomane. She said that literature was tedious for her, because she couldn't stop analysing the plot and actions for cracks in the logic.


vbspurs said...

P.S.: I recall you were an artist before your law career, but a visual arts one.

Ann Althouse said...

"But do you read literature or fiction?"

Well, have you read the other posts... just today?

Ann Althouse said...

This is a post about nonfiction writing. That's the whole subject of the post.

vbspurs said...

Ann, I gotcha. I understood your post was about non-fiction, but I wanted to explore the topic. I also sense (since I've inquired about this specific topic without getting a reply) that you don't really want to discuss reading habits specifically. I'm a big reader. I was just curious and cared to engage you further.

But, no worries, moving on.


rhhardin said...

Mallarmé, a bit of nonfiction, that serves as my proof of the impossibility of artificial intelligence

``We know, captives of an absolute formula that, of course, there is nothing but what is. However, incontinently to out aside, under a pretext, the lure, would point up our inconsequence, denying the pleasure that we wish to take: for that beyond is its agent, and its motor might I say were I not loath to operate, in public, the impious dismantling of the fiction and consequently of the literary mechanism, so as to display the principle part or nothing. But I venerate how, by some flimflam, we project, toward a height both forbidden and thunderous! the conscious lacks in us of what, above, bursts out.''

The last sentence refers to the literary effect that the sentence itself produces by some flimflam that he takes pains to openly demonstrate.

Ann Althouse said...

Well, there is another post, up this same day, that is about fiction, so it seems weird to use this post to needle me about fiction.