to fiction or not to fiction

Tuesday, February 2, 2010 |

This blog is 97% dedicated to fiction. That’s because my reading list = 97% fiction at the moment. Nothing strange about that, right? But in the context of my real life, it makes me wonder…

To give you an idea of my recent reading past: I spent three years in grad school (ending May 2009) reading about 80% non-fiction. The only reason the 80% wasn’t 100% was because I dosed myself with fiction in between projects…as a sanity-saving measure. Mostly that non-fiction I mentioned was social history of colonial South America. I still have all of the books from all of those classes in boxes, back at my parents’ house. I am even still vaguely interested, and I imagine I’ll eventually read them through. But for now? I think…that I’m still in backlash mode. I’ve swung very hard in the direction of me that likes comfort fiction – YA lit, science fiction, a little romance, humor and other ‘happy’ reads. Well, plus the occasional dystopian novel to keep things interesting.

I can’t help but wonder if this is a healthy side of me, or not. At other points in my life when I’ve come this way before, I’ve had formal study to eventually pull me back into more of a balance. And now (thanks to leaving grad school!) I don’t have that eventual, inevitable pendulum swing in my planned future. Definitely there should be a BIT more of a balance. 97% of anything isn’t exactly natural.

The thing that got me thinking about this is not that I’m dissatisfied with my current reading regimen. Far from it! I’m happy as a clam with my cozy weekends of teenage angst and magical happily ever after and ‘the world is ending!’ What made me take stock were the new friends I’ve gathered around me. They’re intense. They’re bold. They’re not really readers. But when they do read, they read with such purpose and drive…and they read almost exclusively non-fiction.

I mean, I’m not saying I’ve ever had someone outside of the family to really talk to about my fiction reading anyway. But this is taking it to another level. When they read, these new friends improve their minds. I’ve always been allergic to self-help books, but this is about using reading as a tool to become a better person – in a moral sense. In a change-so-the-inside-matches-the-outside kind of way. When you get past the sappiness, it sounds really admirable. I want to be that kind of person.

Maybe other people read schoolbooks to become a better person. I didn’t. I read them out of competitiveness or native interest. I am really curious about the stories in books, regardless of the educational ‘intent.’ But what I’m saying is that it never occurred to me that books for school were there to teach me to become a good person. I mean, some of that stuff rubbed off, sure. Some of that is definitely how I was raised, and the books were just reinforcement.

On the other hand, I have known my whole life that the Bible is a moral compass. It’s good for trying to understand abstract and concrete examples of ‘the good life.’ It’s got the best person EVER to emulate in there. I know it’s true. That’s why I still read it.

But I want to find some non-Bible reading material that urges me to consider new concepts, stretch my brain, and improve my character. Where to start? I need suggestions. What’s a non-fiction book that made you re-consider life? That inspired you, made you want to ‘do’ instead of sitting? I don’t need theological texts, necessarily. I just need a place to start – maybe a book or two to slip into the mountain of fiction. Help me out?


Tia said...

I also have the problem of post-grad primarily fiction reading, even though I have tons of nonfiction books from grad school on my shelves that I didn't read at the time and probably should get around to reading.

I have found, though, that I often have more to talk about with others when I read nonfiction, and I've tried to bring it into my repertoire. I still mostly read nonfiction books that interest me, rather than "better" me. I've really been enjoying Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, but it's not particularly focused on inspiration. Other people I know love Mitch Albom's books, so those might be a possibility, but they're not for me.

Lauren said...

I'm so glad I read this post, and that you wrote it. I've been thinking for ages that my obsessive fiction book reading is a reaction to studying so hard for my graduate degree. My degree was in Modern Lit and Literary Theory, so a lot of that was fiction... but serious fiction. Not YA, like I've been binging on ever since.

Now I'm kind of wondering if I too should be encouraging (okay, forcing) myself to read some non-fiction. And you know, I can't think of any non-fiction to recommend at all. Which means this isn't the most helpful comment I've ever left on a blog (sorry), but that I'll be really interested to see what you find.

Jenny said...

I don't read as much nonfiction as I'd like. Can I recommend Julian of Norwich? She was this amazing fourteenth-century Christian mystic, and her writings about her experiences of God are so great.

Unknown said...

A piece on non-fiction that I read recently that scared the crap out of me was Our Stolen Future. Yes, it was related to my major, but not required reading and I recommend all women read it. All of the other non-fiction on my shelf was either too boring to finish, or I never started it.

christa @ mental foodie said...

I had a post "why I read" last month (

Basically, when I was in school (high school through graduate school), I read mostly fiction to "escape". But now that I'm done with school, I am reading a lot more non-fiction (around 70% in the last couple of years) to keep on learning something new - the advantage is that I GET TO CHOOSE WHAT NON-FICTION I WANT TO READ :) So I pick on topics that I am interested in, and that makes reading non-fiction a lot more fun. As much as I love reading, I don't recall ever finishing any text book or assigned reading I am supposed to read... because they were too boring :p

Lisa said...

Three Cups of Tea and Stones to Schools are great for getting inspired. I'm not a huge reader of non-fiction; I'm hoping to use my Gilmore Girls challenge to push myself more this way.

A Bookshelf Monstrosity said...

Oh, man, there's so much great nonfiction out there! I read about 50/50 fiction and nonfiction. I like nonfiction about books (Library: An Unquiet History), travel (most books by Bill Bryson), science (Another Day in the Frontal Lobe), history (Confederates in the Attic). I can go on. And on. Also a fan of Sarah Vowell and Anne Lamott.

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Pip Hunn said...

Wait, so you're counting the Bible as non-fiction?

*cheeky grin*

Ok, for some amazing non-fiction that will stretch your brain, try the following:
Hot, Flat and Crowded
In Defense of Food,
Between those three books, you'll be bound to find something that'l stetch and interest you.

Have fun!
Write Thing - Editor

Rabid Fox said...

When it comes to nonfiction, I'm a firm believer in humor. I've tried reading the political nonfiction out there-Ann Coulter, Michael Moore, Naomi Klein--and it's not that appealing to me.

The funny stuff, though, is pure gold. David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, and Jonathan Goldstein are each worth their weight in said gold.

Memory said...

Oddly enough, I find that fiction, more than nonfiction, inspires me to consider what it means to be a good person. When I read nonfiction, I'm hoping to gain a greater understanding of a particular topic. When I read fiction, I'm hoping to place myself in the characters' shoes. The latter gives me more leeway to explore my reactions to particular situations and to consider notions of goodness and what it means to be human.

Kim said...

Fiction, yes, definitely. The closest I get to non-fiction are memoirs, which I do enjoy.

I agree with Rabid Fox. I heard once that the most effective way to teach youth is "make 'em laugh--teach 'em something--make'em laugh..."

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