Can fiction tell us what nonfiction can’t?

And is there a difference between nonfiction and history? Is it just the time period they cover – or is it the author’s attitude, as well?

In nonfiction we see an author’s view – or the reporter’s selection of facts – through our own lens – creating two layers of protection from possibly unpleasant facts. Think of it as a double-layered sunscreen from the bright light of reality. Fiction just has a different set of filters. Most of us accept that fiction, unlike nonfiction, has to at least pay lip service to commonly-accepted versions of reality. A good writer zooms in on one aspect of a bigger picture – the aspect that opens our eyes to the greater truth that underlies everything else, unobstructed by facts and ephemera. A photographer does the same thing by cropping to a single part of a landscape or scene, then adjusting colour, contrast and so forth.

Oh, and don’t forget that our personal experience has its own filters as well. When two of us, standing side-by-side, deal with the same event, do we have the same experience? Of course not. Our response depends on the outside experience we bring to the event along with the use we’ll make of it in our future lives. Most courtroom experts will tell us that eyewitness memories aren’t particularly reliable. Anyway, I’m going to leave this here, as a thought starter, since there are countless books, from countless viewpoints, on the topic. If you agree, disagree or would like to expand on these thoughts I’ll be looking forward to hearing from you.

My view: Nonfiction expands our knowledge. Good fiction expands our minds.

Who’d have thought that an afternoon of perusing Midland Books’ shelves would lead to these pseudo-academic comments on truth and reality, whatever they happen to be?

Tullamore. As is becoming my usual practice, I walked in to the shop without any particular goal in mind. With a nod and a smile the salesperson gave me time and space to browse and I took more time than usual since I had nowhere to be and the spines-out library-style display forced me to pull books to examine them. Remember, I’m not coming in on a mission to buy a particular book. I’m here to explore, to see what there is to see before I make a decision. My only goal is to find a new book that looks like it will interest me.

Some stores cover their thin stock with wide aisles and lots of single-copy book covers on display. They may – or may not – stock another copy of the same book behind the display copy. At Midland nearly all the books show their spines – often with several copies of the same book. While this makes my browsing time a bit longer, it’s a tribute to the store and its investment in inventory.

While scanning their shelves I saw a book recommended by a friend – a 500-page reminiscence by a public figure.  Years ago I absolutely would have bought it and inhaled it over the course of a few nights. But today? My head’s in a different place and space. I really don’t care if it’s reporting or history, it’s not for me right now. Then I saw some wonderful blurbs from people I respect on a series of essays by an author I’ve never heard of.  Not today. Maybe another time.

In retrospect, I realize I was simply wandering through the shelves, not paying too much attention to the fiction/nonfiction/bestseller/other categories that can guide us like cattle chutes if we’re not careful – or make our lives easier if we’re on a mission. I guess you could say I was on an unguided mission, which I sort of enjoy.

Anyway, after all this, I picked out a book with an interesting cover, not really sure if it was fiction or nonfiction. But it caught my eye and my wallet. Sitting over a cup of coffee a few minutes later I realized that it’s nonfiction: a journalist’s view of his wife’s family history – The Shoemaker and His Daughter. I’ve put it on the top of my to-be-read pile – and will probably start it in the next day or three.

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This piece is just one of a number I’ve written about my long-term love affair with books. If you’d like to see more simply click on the “Books” category below. You can also subscribe, so that you’ll see these blogs as they’re written, as opposed to social media’s algorithms. As the saying goes, if you like my writing, tell your friends. If you don’t, tell your enemies.

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