A Break From Fiction

I finished reading the third volume of 1Q84. I tried to drag it out for as long as I could but it had to happen eventually. There is a lovely quote (that I am probably going to mis-remember and I can’t even look up because I don’t remember who said it. I only just about caught it as it zoomed past on my twitter feed,) that goes like this; There is no better sadness than that of finishing a good book. And so, out of disproportionate reverence, I am taking a little break from reading fiction in order to allow 1Q84 to ferment in my mind a little bit. So I pulled some non-fiction from my to-read pile.

I chose Quiet by Susan Cain for at home, and Watching the English by Kate Fox for on the train. I am still only part way through each and am finding I feel the same way about both. While I am enjoying them, they are both periodically frustrating.

There’s a guy I know that I bump into on the train from time to time who often seems a little perplexed by the way I am always reading novels. He reads non-fiction almost exclusively. I tried to defend myself with a GK Chesterton quote, (fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they can be defeated) but I think this only made it sound like I read fairy tales. Fiction, as any fiction lover will intuitively (if not literally) know, contains a different kind of truth. Non-fiction almost seems to suffer from the burden of appearing to contain nothing but truth.

Kate Fox, in the opening to Watching the English (an anthropological study of English people and our societal rules), does her book a big service by writing a self-effacing chapter about the limits of anthropology and defining her methodology. It is a necessary opening because otherwise the book quickly begins to contradict the experiences of the reader. By characterising ‘The English’ as a singular animal there are plenty of moments of recognition and plenty of moments that do not ring true. But to write the book in a way that would be more true (by adding caveats to every assertion that not everyone is the same, and that these ideas seem to make sense within her research and evidence) would be clumsy and boring.

Quiet, a book that comes with the tagline ‘The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’, has some similar problems in the way it appears to split the world into two groups; introverts and extroverts. We all know it isn’t that simple, it can’t be that simple, but for the book to be at all readable it has to be presented that way. The boring truth is probably that most people lie somewhere in the middle of the extremes. There’s a lot of very interesting stuff in this book but throughout I have found myself wondering where I actually lie in this binary world of introverted/extroverted character types. I appear to have this introverted attribute, but then I appear to have that extroverted attribute. Reality tends not to be so simple. I bought the book because I have always thought of myself as introverted and so a pro-introvert book appealed to me, (There is no way on Earth I would have bought a book called LOUD! – The Power of People who Can’t Seem to Shut the Fuck Up!)

Both books are their best when the authors are simply recounting stories that illustrate ideas. Kate Fox ear-wigging conversations in a pub, Susan Cain’s experiences at the Unleash The Power Within conference. Non-fiction authors would do well to borrow from novels. If it isn’t science, don’t worry about being unscientific. Forget evidence and conclusions, just tell your anecdotes and I’ll make sense of them for myself.

(In the spirit of things I’d like to add some caveats. 1, If it is science, then you’d better be very bloody scientific. Don’t think you can get away with anecdotes then, because you can’t. 2, I know that to discuss any issue in an intelligible way the argument has to be focused. By concentrating on the extremes of the parameters you can then make sense of the stuff in the middle. I am, if anything, being epistemologically finickity.)


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