It was an unlikely locker room conversation to begin with… two guys talking about what books they were reading while they stripped their sweaty gear off after a workout. Any book discussion gets my attention, so I tuned in. The reading habits of guy number 1, let’s call him Mr. Hirsute, seemed pedestrian and mainstream: he said he’d just finished The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and was now reading The Help. I think he may have also mentioned The Hunger Games. The response of guy number 2, let’s call him Mr. Baldaz a’Coot, drove a cold hard sword through my heart. “I don’t,” he said, “have time to read fiction.”
I felt like grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him. I felt like taking a large novel, Don Quixote for instance, and whacking some sense into his hair-free cranium. What does that even mean, he doesn’t have TIME to read fiction?
He told Mr. Hirsute that he was currently reading Walter Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs (called, in a fit of naming appropriateness, Steve Jobs). Now, I haven’t read Mr. Isaacson’s book, and what follows should by no means be taken as a critique of that work. It may be one of the best biographies of this or any century. The point isn’t that Mr. Coot should not be reading biographies. The point (implied, at least, by his snarky remark) is that he believes reading fiction is a waste of time. He sees it as mere entertainment. Frippery. Pointless time wasting. He doesn’t have time to waste. Other people may. Let them read fiction. He will focus his mind and sharpen its faculties on non-fiction. Non-fiction will make him a better, wiser man. A more knowledgeable man. A man equipped to take on the 21st century, and all its weird ways.
Now, I’ve got nothing against non-fiction. I read it myself. I’m reading two non-fiction books at the moment. (I’m also reading at least two novels and a couple of short story collections). In the past few months I’ve also read The Swerve and In The Garden of Beasts. I enjoyed them both. Learnt a lot. Time well spent. And I will continue to read non-fiction, because although I’d rather be reading fiction, I think minds work best when they are exposed to a wide landscape of thought.
However, as a writer, I take exception to Mr. Coot’s implied criticism of fiction. Writing is a daily struggle to get to grips with the human condition and unearth some sliver of truth about it from the everyday pile-ups of our lives. Story, as my friend Sue Reynolds reminded me recently, is what makes us human. To be human is to craft a narrative for ourselves and the seemingly meaningless stream of sense impressions that barrage us in what we call life. If you don’t have time to get to grips with the human condition Mr. Coot, you’ve lost the plot of your own life.
Is this the special pleading of the specialist? The tortured bleating of the increasingly irrelevant? Or do you agree that in crafting (and immersing ourselves in) narrative, we capture something essential and integral to our nature as homo sapiens?