I began to choose history, popular science, theology, biography, philosophy and commentary over novels, for a number of reasons.
One was the sense that I really needed to know more about how the world works. I’ve been around a bit, but I’m not an overly educated man. I wanted to get an understanding of history’s sweep, of the facts of science, of the way religion frames the world. The lives of the great, the worldviews of the brilliant, and the ideas of the clever all gave me some insight into the facts, the way the world is.
Another reason I shunned fiction for a while was that it is, by definition, not reality. A part of my Buddhist-influenced spiritual practice is to accept and be grounded in what is actual. It seemed that fiction ran counter to this; how can I be present if my imagination is absent?
Then there’s the simple and perhaps most critical influence on my reading choices: my own energy. Every work of fiction is another world, and takes energy to enter and to occupy. My own world is a diverting and demanding place. It takes a lot just to live reasonably well here. I couldn’t always afford the luxury of occupying somebody else’s world for long enough to swallow whatever story they had on the go.
I have to say in my own defence, too, that I’ve spent most of the past ten years online, where I read an enormous number of articles and stories daily, many of them by the great columnists and journalists of our time. I funneled what I gleaned from them into my own work as a writer and editor for Discovery Channel, CBC, and Canoe.
The success of the Canoe Dossier owes something to my choices of reading during that time.
Additionally, and to my embarrassment, I must note the jealousy factor. The plain truth is, I consider myself a very good writer, and it irks me that my talent has largely gone unrecognized… while others toil in the fields of fiction and foist their odd visions on the rest of us. (Seen in that light, the act of writing has often seemed to me a form of illness, wherein the writer sweats out whatever unlovely condition lurks inside. Why should the rest of us drink it?)
These are not noble sentiments, but they are important ones.
So for all these reasons, for the past number of years I’ve been filling my shelves with a preponderance of non-fiction. In fact I’ve still read lots of fiction; I’ve had to, to keep up with my daughter’s reading, which comprises a lengthy list of really good books we’ve both read. And certainly a number of novels and graphic novels have snuck into my reading list – but by contrast with my former habits, it hasn’t seemed like much.
For about the past year, however, I’ve been getting set for a return to the world of fiction, as ludicrous as that may sound – as if I’m girding my loins for battle, or preparing to mount an expedition. Yet that’s a little of how I see it.
And now a number of factors have led me to make the decision to read fiction again deliberately, and primarily.
One is the constant cajoling of a couple of serious readers and writers (my daughter is one) who feel my work demands a return to those realms. After all, I write fiction myself, and it’s rather contrary of me not to pay attention to what else is out there.
I’m also realizing that on account of having mostly ignored fiction – and almost entirely ignored contemporary fiction – for so long, I have no idea who does what, or how the form has advanced. I don’t know Yann Martel from Rohinton Mistry, largely haven’t cared, and thus am ignorant of whatever they and their contemporaries may have done that’s interesting or worthy. That’s a lamentable lack of knowledge for a guy who wields the pen.
Plus, I’ve got an appetite for reading now that I hadn’t before, due to the fact that I’m no longer spending 8-12 hours a day online. I spent much of that time reading, and I think I’m feeling an increase in reading capacity based on the fact that I’m no longer absorbing so many words and ideas as part of my daily work.
And then there’s the fact that the “world” of fiction is, in fact, not apart from “the real world.” How can it be, when it arises from, exists within, and seeks to reflect the world we actually inhabit? If fiction doesn’t do that, no matter how improbable its premise or far-fetched its setting, it serves no purpose and leaves the reader feeling empty. Not to suggest that writers necessarily seek deliberately to illuminate the human condition, but that is the true function of great writing, whether factual or fictional. So there is no “world” separate from this one.
Seeking to understand the way the world is includes seeking an understanding of why people do the things they do, how our emotional complexities manifest, and so forth. These are things best done by art, and great novels are a sure path for me to journey toward that sort of understanding. Fiction is not factual, but the best of it is True, in ways that non-fiction and even other art forms have a hard time approaching.
And in any case, you’ve got to read if you want to write, and what you read will inevitably affect what you write. I’ve never ceased writing, as the hundreds of posts in this blog and hundreds more in the Canoe Dossier attest. I’ve even kept writing fiction, all through the drought, as well as poetry and of course, dozens and dozens of songs. But I feel I’ve got books in me, and it’s about time to get them out.
So I’m filling myself with other people’s words and worlds, for a while. Drood, by Dan Simmons, is my current obsession, and I have to say it feels great to sink fully into a spell-binding Gothic page-turner without any apparent relevance for my own day-to-day life.
We’ll just see whether reading new material means writing new material: out of my heart and down the fiery tendons of my forearms, into the keyboard and out onto the page.