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 The History of Love

Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love is quite possibly my very favorite modern novel. Though I’ve read this story more times than nearly any other (with the exception of Pride and Prejudice), every time I revisit The History of Love, I feel like I’m reading the story for the very first time. I guess that sounds a bit cliche and maybe it could more accurately be attributed to my poor memory than the style and grace of the novel. Nonetheless, it truly is a treat to read each and every time and, upon my last re-read, I thought it was about time I posted about it.

Though this intelligent novel is in some ways a love story, don’t let the title fool you – it’s not your typical cheesy romance novel. Instead, Krauss weaves a story centered around a fictitious novel entitled The History of Love. This hauntingly beautiful book plays a pivotal role in the life of fourteen-year-old Alma who was named after the beloved character around who the fictitious novel is centered and that of the elderly writer Leo Gursky who is living out his last days in the company of his memories of Poland and his greatest love. Seemingly disparate but deeply drawn characters are wound together in this extraordinary story. Though it can be hard at times to follow the various intersecting story lines, all told with separate times, settings, and narrators, The History of Love is the single, delicate thread that holds these lives together by the end, when it all starts to make a little more sense. This isn’t the kind of story that knowingly leaves you in the dark, though it does throw little surprises the reader’s way that make it all the more touching and delightful.

As I’ve said, Krauss tells her story through a variety of alternating narrators. Though I’m usually a fan of this style of delivery, there is undoubtedly always that character in every book whose story I find myself anxious to get through. At the very least, I usually favor one or two of the voices over the others and am most drawn to those particular storylines. Not so with The History of Love. Despite the stark contrast between the styles employed by the very different narrators of this novel, I revel in each and every voice that Krauss employs to tell her story. No one character’s piece is any more or less interesting, entertaining, or appealing to read; but rather, they are all highly interesting, entertaining, and appealing.

I really can’t say enough about this book’s brilliance and how much of an impact it has had on me. I feel like this is a relatively short book review post for me, but that’s partly attributable to the fact that this novel is such a joy to read. I hope that my short but sweet summary will encourage readers to seek this novel out, without spoiling any of the joy that is indulging in The History of Love. I also don’t think that my praises could really do justice to such a well-thought-out, intelligent, but heartbreaking piece of literature so here are a few of my favorite excerpts.

“Maybe this is how I’ll go, in a fit of laughter, what could be better, laughing and crying, laughing and singing, laughing so as to forget that I am alone, that it is the end of my life, that death is waiting outside the door for me.”

“Once upon a time there was a boy who love a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.”

“Having begun to feel, people’s desire to feel grew. They wanted to feel more, feel deeper, despite how much it sometimes hurt. People became addicted to feeling. They struggled to uncover new emotions. It’s possible that this is how art was born. New kinds of joy were forged, along with new kinds of sadness: The eternal disappointment of life as it is; the relief of unexpected reprieve; the fear of dying.”

“Even now, all possible feelings do not yet exist. There are still those that lie beyond our capacity and our imagination. From time to time, when a piece of music no one has ever written, or a painting no one has ever painted, or something else impossible to predict, fathom, or yet describe takes place, a new feeling enters the world. And then, for the millionth time in the history of feeling, the heart surges, and absorbs the impact.”

 

*She’s also married to Jonathan Safran Foer and it is truly remarkable how similar The History of Love is to Everything Is Illuminated in subject matter, narrative style, and genre-transcendence. I would highly recommend The History of Love to Foer fans in particular.