Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Fiction v non-fiction - the wrong battle

One of my resolutions for this year was to write more posts that had some sort of intellectual substance. This first stab at more of a think piece concentrates on the rewards and differences between reading fiction and non-fiction. For the last few years, partly as a result of undertaking an MA in historical research, plus a life-long love of history, my reading was devoted to history almost exclusively.

It was all too easy to see reading fiction as something frivolous and a bit like sitting down to swallow the latest Eastenders episode rather than watching the news. But the last ten months, which has been all classic fiction rather than history, has been the most enjoyable reading time in my life. It is not because history was not as rewarding but it touches you in a different way. Reading history makes you think about why and how people reacted to certain situations but fiction makes you dream even more because you never know what is coming next. The best books hide their secrets until the final pages whereas if you choose to leaf through a book on the Russian revolution however much the first chapters might make the communists seem to be weak and vulnerable you know Lenin and company win in the end.

My problem had been to make it a choice between two different broad styles, which was a mistake because they can be complementary. Fiction has provided me with pictures and images that are echoed in history but because they are about ordinary people, the Tara Bulba’s of this world, they somehow seem to be more accessible and feel more real. To keep the example of the Russian revolution, which I’ve chosen going, you can read about the revolution in numerous books but you only start to understand what it felt like to be involved with it when you read Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago and Mikhail Bulagov’s The White Guard. Then you start to understand what Lenin replaced when you read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

My only wish is that I had started to mix up fiction and non-fiction earlier on.


Brandon said...

If you're looking for some nonfiction, there's a great blog called Nonfiction Readers Anonymous. You can find the link on my "Links" page.

simon quicke said...

Thanks for the tip Brandon I checked it out and have now linked to it.

maya said...

Interesting blog you have here; I'll be linking to it from my literature blog. Btw, Tolstoy really made me forget the real story of the wars between Russia and Napoleon when I read War & Peace. Russian literature is so wonderful, especially Dostoevsky ^_^