Time, they say, is what prevents everything from happening at once. I’ve noticed something about my reading life (is there any other kind of life?). One of my favorite topics on this blog is books. Both reading and writing them. When I wake up and try to clear the cobwebs of sleep from my head to think about the day’s post, I always feel relieved when I have a book I’ve just finished because that’s an eager and ready topic. When I’m in the middle of a large book, it seems like a long time until I’ll be able to jot down some thoughts on it, and the ideas don’t always flow. It’s here that I’ve noticed a strange kind of pattern and it has to do with the way I read. Interestingly, it isn’t intentional. It goes back to my post-commuting literary lifestyle.
I read nonfiction in the mornings. I awake early and after about an hour of writing I try to get in an hour of reading before thoughts turn to work and its unraveling effect on the fabric I’ve been weaving before the sun rises. The nonfiction I read depends, to a large extent, on my writing projects. Not exactly the kind of research that time and libraries afford academics, but still, research in my own way. Often these nonfiction books are large—400 pagers seem to be the trend. I’m a slow reader, so they take some weeks to finish. At night (or actually evening, for I retire early) I read fiction. It isn’t unusual for my fiction choices to be briefer than the nonfiction books of the morning. It always seems, however, that I finish two books very near the same time. Then I have two book posts in a week and many days without any.
Since we married over thirty years ago, my wife and I read to each other. Usually she reads while I wash dishes. Those reading choices are by mutual consent. They sometimes make their way into my research, but more often they show up in my fiction writing. In any case, they also seem to fit this same pattern. When I finish a large nonfiction book in the morning, the same day, or the next day, I generally finish my fiction book. Shortly after that our dishes-reading book finishes. I’ve noticed this happening over the past couple of years and I always wonder about unexpected patterns that I find. It doesn’t always happen this way, but it does often enough to make me wonder. If I intentionally set out to do this it would be understandable, but as it is, it simply happens. As they say, things tend to occur in threes.
All writing is fiction. I suppose that requires some unpacking. One of the first things we do when we approach a piece of writing is answer the question “what kind of writing is this?” We may not do this consciously, but we wouldn’t benefit much from reading if we didn’t. If your significant other leaves you a note stuck to your computer monitor or the refrigerator door, you know at a glance that it likely contains pithy, factual information. If you pick up a newspaper you know what to expect the contents to be like. It’s quite different if you pick up The Onion. Or a romance novel. These categories are extremely helpful, but they can also be problematic. Any writer knows that you write and others decide on your genre.
I read a lot of nonfiction. It is a kind of fiction, however, since it follows a narrative and it contains mistakes, or perhaps faulty assumptions. Moreover, nonfiction is a reflection of its own time. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s England had giants in its past. It simply did. Today we question his working assumptions just as surely as future people (if we long survive) will ours. This current generation doesn’t really excel at critical thinking. Many academics, as critical as they are in their own fields, fall into standard assumptions once you get beyond their expertise. They accept the fictions of their era just as readily as does everybody else. In reality our nonfiction is not the naked fact we like to think it is—it is the narrative of one perspective. It is perhaps the truth as it is perceived in its own time.
This may seem to be a subtle distinction, but it is an important one. Genres are very convenient handles that we use to classify what we’re reading. Very often they become straightjackets that constrain what writing has the potential to be. The word “genre” is related to the concept of genus, the classification about species. Zonkeys and other, perhaps rare, but possible cross-breedings show us that hopeful monsters of the literary world are also possible. We would soon suffer without genres in a world as full of words as this one is. We also suffer from simple distinctions that somehow become iron-clad over time. Think about the narrative that comes out of the White House. We’re accustomed to it being mostly nonfiction. At least we were until recently. Watergate broke our trust in that, and now we live in a world of fiction masquerading as reality. Critical thinking is, perhaps, the only way to make sense of any of this.