On My Love Affair with Nonfiction

I’ve always been a reader. While growing up, I was the kind of girl who would rather be at home with a good book than nearly anyplace else. I would gladly have forgone high school dances, movie theater trips to see cheesy chic flicks, and middle school slumber parties for a good book. Isolating myself with a novel was always the thing that made the most sense to me.

My love affair with non-fiction most accurately began as a direct result of an ex-boyfriend’s commentary on my extensive collection of novels. “You have a lot of fiction,” he noted in a tone that let me know my bookshelves were severely lacking in his opinion without any nonfiction in the mix.

I don’t want to waste too much time on this guy since he did play a large role in encouraging some profound changes in my life. In addition to not-so-subtly encouraging me to pick up some non-fiction, this particular ex also made a passive, if not joking, dig at my domestic skills, or lack thereof. This was in high school, mind you, so at the time, I had given little thought to food nor demonstrated any particular inclination to become the next Julia Child. But I took his comment as a challenge and forced my way into the kitchen, discovering a whole new world of passion within.

But I digress. Nonfiction had been starkly absent from my avid reading life and, when this fact was brought to my attention, I quickly righted the situation. My first foray into non-fiction was Counterculture Through the Ages by Ken Goffman. Goffman’s book provided an extensive overview of countercultural movements, from Socrates up to the punk music scene. I was initially drawn to the book because of the subject matter; countercultures and social movements felt impossibly cool and I held little doubt that this first piece of nonfiction would start to steer me in the right bibliophile direction. I adored Goffman’s book and so proceeded to seek more options that were not fiction at all.

A smattering of memoirs and biographies soon followed but my undergraduate workload kept me from reading much of anything for a few years. There was the occasional Chuck Klosterman collection of essays and Prozac Nation after struggling with depression. But when I did find the time to delve into a new book, I was more likely to treat myself to absorption in a well-deserved, if not rather mindless novel than an arduous piece of carefully crafted non-fiction. When life finally offered me another opportunity to read as I chose, Jonathan Franzen’s How to Be Alone and Barbara Kingsolver’s multiple collections of essays. It was these writings that taught me about how meaningful and personal nonfiction could be. At the time (and probably still to this day) there was no piece of writing that I related to quite as much as the title essay of Franzen’s book, a thoughtful piece on reading and solitude. Kingsolver’s essay collections (one of which I reviewed here) were what first made me seriously consider writing. Though essay collections may not be the most profitable ventures, her books made me realize that personal essays and well constructed arguments on topics of all kinds can be elegantly tied together in a single volume. Reading Kingsolver’s nonfiction produced in me a powerful desire to follow suit; I wanted to write like she did on topics as varied as hers in such wise ways.

From there, I followed my interests and found plenty of nonfiction to read on food, agriculture, and health (think Michael Pollan). As I continued to explore the realm of nonfiction, it became increasingly apparent that such books are not inherently boring, nor do they necessarily lack plot, sentimentality, theme, or story. I always imagined that a book based on reality or containing research would be unimaginative and dull. But Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals proved to me that books about real life topics, in this case human’s carnivorous habits and how animals get to our plates, can be highly entertaining and follow a remarkably narrative path. Warren St. John’s Outcasts United is easily one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in the past few years and the story of a refugee soccer team was made more powerful and engrossing because it was true. Bill McKibbin’s The Age of Missing Information is dense but raised more than a few topics for consideration, things I had to think about deeply in order to determine my own stance on them. And there are few books out there, fiction or not, with more heart than Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains.

The range of work which falls under the nonfiction categorization is impossibly vast and largely delightful for readers who indulge in what is of interest to them. Nonfiction does not necessitate writing which lacks personality, interest, or excitement, but it is something which becomes most meaningful when carefully selected by a reader. Despite the sense of inferiority and shame I initially felt when my ex commented on how little nonfiction I owned way back when, I am now rather grateful that he vocalized this judgment, because it introduced me to a whole world of valuable reading materials which I may never have considered otherwise.

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On Freedom

Jonathan Franzen is one of today’s most undeniably talented and intelligent writers and, currently, he is pretty much on top of the world. His most recent novel, Freedom, is being declared the new definitive American novel, a masterpiece, a story that defines a generation, etc. etc. I was first introduced to him when a friend suggested I read The Corrections, his second full length novel. She prefaced her suggestion by assuring me that it would not be an easy read, however it would prove to be a very worthwhile one. I came upon a series of essays by the author, however, before I turned to any of his works of fiction. The essays compiled in Franzen’s collection entitled How to Be Alone were beautifully written, intelligently constructed, thought-provoking, and completely relatable. When I made it to The Corrections, I was enraptured by Franzen’s story-telling ability, the way in which he created a riveting family saga that covers all the humor, nostalgia, sentimentality, conflict, and monotony of family life. I’ll refrain from raving about these works for now but let it be known, I was eager to read Freedom, despite all the hype, the controversy with Oprah, and the predictions of greatness, simply because of my genuine love for Franzen’s work.

Like The CorrectionsFreedom is a book about the modern American family, a snapshot of one dysfunctional and disparate family struggling to make sense of the world today and their place in it. When I considered why Franzen selected the title Freedom, I realized how this novel explores the ways in which family life can encourage and inhibit our freedom, and how central this struggle is to daily family life. Freedom is certainly at the center of it all, both our freedoms to and our freedoms from, freedoms both real and imagined, both implicated and explicit. Franzen created a novel that surveys one of the most prized and predominant American values in the context of modern family life.

In the Berglund family depicted in Freedom, Walter is the do-gooder father, a hopelessly devoted husband and environmental advocate working for the Nature Conservancy. We’re almost misled to believe that he is most like us – the sane one, the most relatable and reliable character. In time, however, we learn that no character is so easily categorized or trusted. Sure, Walter presumes the picture of normality, but ultimately reveals moments of radical extremism that wreck havoc on himself and his family.

Then there’s Walter’s wife Patty. A college athlete, she never knew much outside of basketball and an ambition to win. Her relationships have all been defined by what she gets out of them – her closest friend from college loved Patty to a confidence boosting degree, Patty’s favorite thing about Walter is his  unconditional love for her, the security he provides. Though she may seem the picture of the perfect stay-at-home mom, blessed with an adoring husband and perfect children, Franzen once again proves that things are never as simple as they seem when Patty is challenged by the friend who drew her to Walter in the first place.

And then there is the Berglund’s daughter Jessica, a type-A personality who is distanced from her mother on account of Patty’s overwhelming love and devotion to Joey, her youngest offspring. We follow the course of the children’s lives, jumping back and forth in time to see where Jessica and Joey go in relation to where their parents have been. The children experiment with an array of moral and political leanings and their own changing attitudes toward the Berglunds, all while confronting the disparity between their expectations and reality of adult life.

Freedom is not just about the family in modern America – it truly is about freedom and the ways in which it manifests itself in 21st century America. This is a novel about our responsibility to the world and what we have been told the world owes to us. Franzen confronts the issues of how to deal with the freedom, or lack thereof, that modern culture affords each and every American citizen. The Berglunds live in a world where freedom comes at the price of figuring out what exactly to do with it. A world where people are free to be like everyone else, to join the masses and never think about a thing for themselves, to blindly follow the herd and do as they’re told. But also a world where true freedom is never quite free, where every decision carries the weight of moral and political implications, where nothing is so isolated and unfettered as to be completely free.

In Franzen’s latest, he challenges the notion of freedom upon which so many people believe their family’s life is based. The husband who is enslaved to his wife, the wife burdened by unhealthy relationships, the daughter who seeks space from the dysfunction of her family, and the son who yearns for freedom from his father’s ideals. In this enveloping novel, Franzen plays with the very idea of freedom through the example of the Berglund family and, hopefully, suggests to his many readers a more  well-intentioned way of living a life more free.