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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What Does “Nonfiction” Mean to You?

Marina parking lot, full of snow

In my literary lexicon, there is poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction, so I’m always a little confused when a newcomer to my bookstore asks, “Do you have a nonfiction section?” Nonfiction, in fact, takes up most of the shelf space in my bookstore.

One wall and a small part of another is basically fiction—and then there’s history and travel (which I combined, for the sake of convenience, when I made the move back to Waukazoo Street), biography and memoir, philosophy, religion, self-help, health, sports, law, economics, true crime, foreign language, natural history, physics, astronomy, do-it-yourself, cookbooks, military. There’s even a category for “islands” and another for “adventure.” So the answer to the question is not “Yes, I have a nonfiction section,” but “I have many nonfiction sections.” Still, I couldn’t help wondering, so when I ran into a fellow bookseller the other day, I asked him if I was missing something.

I mean, back in the old days (by which I mean 15+ years ago) we did not say, “Back in the day.” Really! We said, “Back in the old days.” The first time I saw the newer reference to earlier times, it was in print, and my inner editor was highly offended. What the hell did the writer mean by that? But then I started listening for the phrase and hearing it everywhere. I may never hear it without an initial shudder or twinge, but I realize now that it’s a phrase in common usage, clearly (I note with interest) accepted across the generations, and one that has replaced my old way of speaking. (Sigh!)

Life itself has been newly divided into five kingdoms (there were two when I was in school), so who knew what new divisions might have been inaugurated in the world of books? Do you see the source of my unease? Was there, I wondered, a younger, hipper definition, some narrower definition than the one in my mind, for “nonfiction”?

The fellow bookseller I asked, who as it happens is exactly my son’s age, reassured me. No, he said, there is no new boundary for the term, and the people who ask need to be more precise about what they want. What a relief!

But I’m exaggerating my anxiety. What constitutes “nonfiction” for any particular bookstore browser has never been a problem, because I don’t mind asking questions in return to get closer to what a customer wants, I don’t expect everyone who comes into my bookshop to use my vocabulary and intuit my way of categorizing books, and it’s a nice opening for conversation. It’s certainly preferable to “Is there any organization at all to how these books are arranged?” Can you believe someone actually asked me that once? No, I just put those identifying tags on the shelves to encourage false hope!

About half the books I read every year are nonfiction. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking was the first one of this year, and I wrote about it at length in January. Meditations on Hunting was a gift from a dear friend and as much philosophy as sport. Many of my friends would find it morally repugnant, I know, but I was fascinated by the argument Ortega y Gasset makes for hunting (and fishing, he allows, but then does not explore this aspect) as the only true way human beings (and he says “men,” but I see no reason to restrict the argument in that way) can reconnect with the precivilized life we had in common with other, still wild animals. The author makes particularly scathing remarks about “hunting” with a camera but says nothing, I couldn’t help noticing, of drawing or sketching or even tracking without killing, and isn’t “to hunt” to seek, to search for, to follow? In the end, I’m not sure I bought his whole argument, but it was fascinating to follow the trail of his reflective thought through woods and field....

Deadly Spin I've also written about already so won’t say more here, and next in my 2013 nonfiction reading was The Jefferson Bible, something I’d heard about for years but never before read. Jefferson’s purpose was to separate the message of Jesus from other material in the Gospels. Jefferson didn’t care about miracles but about the teachings of Jesus, and I’d say that his idea was that to be a Christian meant to follow the teachings, rather than to get too hung up on belief in miracles.

Solzhenitsyn’s speeches, despite repetitions within them, were fascinating. What would he say today, I wonder, about cordial American business relations with the government of China?

Finally I treated myself to Adam Gopnik’s book of essays on winter. Gopnik never disappoints me. Although this one has been more of an indoor winter for me, as opposed to last year’s outdoor winter, it was satisfying to reflect with the author on Western views of winter born in the modern era and how they have changed over the course of 200 years.

David has been reading nonfiction, too, most recently the Frances Mayes book called Bella Tuscany, which he tells me I’ll love, as she writes quite a lot about gardening. Is he escaping from winter in reading about life in Italy? Nothing wrong with that, is there? He balanced the Italy escape last night with a book about the recent global financial collapse and told me a lot about Iceland and how its economy fell. 

Are we recovering? The president thinks so. Do you? Can afford to indulge yourself with a good new book? I'll have an order arriving in the next couple of days.

Lights on and wear seatbelts, please!


dmarks said...

I wonder if the customers go on to the gas station and inquire if they offer petroleum-based auto fuels. Or ask if a tavern serves alcohol.

As for that last paragraph, it reminds me of when a bottom-ranked sports team says it is "rebuilding", or how the term "developing" is used for even for third-world countries that are devolving and regressing (Is Somalia really "developing"? Or Zaire/Congo? Zimbabwe? Venezuela?). "Recovery" is over-used in that context and that is not a slam at Obama: all Presidents do this.

P. J. Grath said...

So how about all those movie scenes where a guy takes a seat at the bar and says to the bartender, "I'll have a beer"? As in, any old generic beer at all?

dmarks said...

Works for many barflies, such as Norm Peterson.