On reading nonfiction

And why it makes fiction so unattractive

The problem with nonfiction is that once you get accustomed to reading it you cannot read fiction any more. At any rate that is what happens to the more intelligent people. I know many smart individuals who underwent that transition. I used to be a voracious fiction reader myself. Now the mind simply refuses to accept investing time and effort in reading fiction – the sole exception being Shafiq-ur-Rahman’s stories. It is true that many people continue to read and cherish fiction till an advanced age – and many of them are intelligent people – but my contention is that that is mainly because they have only ever read fiction all their lives, and have never tasted the joys of nonfiction.

Truth is indeed stranger than fiction: How an electron behaves and how massive bodies deform space itself are no doubt more ‘fantastic’ concepts than anything conjured up by the minds of the most imaginative of fiction writers. That being said, few nonfiction readers are interested in the broad outlines of quantum mechanics or the general theory of relativity – fewer still in their intricacies. What then, if not the stranger-than-fiction theory, explains why readers tend to gravitate towards nonfiction, with fiction becoming less and less attractive as they progress in life?

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Before venturing to answer the question, let me acknowledge that the line between fiction and nonfiction is somewhat blurred – what is nonfiction for one individual may be fiction for another. For example, there are those who maintain that the memoir, the biography, the autobiography, the correspondence, the interview, the self-help guide and the political column are for the most part fantasy rather than nonfiction. Similarly, philosophy was famously declared a form of fiction by Bertrand Russell, himself a first-rate philosopher. I once saw a photograph where a book entitled ‘Female Intelligence’ had been placed in the ‘Fiction’ section of a bookstore, no doubt by somebody possessing a wicked sense of humour (somebody had been thoughtful enough to share the image on the social media for the benefit of humanity at large). On a more serious note, a convincing case can be made that much of what is published in scientific journals, textbooks, and popular science magazines on evolution and psychology (on the latter, by adherents of the Behaviourist school) is more fiction than nonfiction. I have touched on some of these issues in an earlier piece, so I do not propose to take them up here. Therefore, for our purposes, anything presented as nonfiction will be considered nonfiction.

Truth is indeed stranger than fiction: How an electron behaves and how massive bodies deform space itself are no doubt more ‘fantastic’ concepts than anything conjured up by the minds of the most imaginative of fiction writers.

The one indubitable merit of nonfiction is that it deals with the real world around us. In contrast, fiction deals with the world of make-believe. This distinction is valid. But it is sometimes said that fiction is read for pleasure while nonfiction is read to enrich oneself. Most intelligent people would not accept this neat classification, however. Because although one mark of the intelligent mind is to be constantly on the lookout to educate itself, pleasure and enrichment are not necessarily distinct as far as the intelligent man is concerned. For him, there are few activities more pleasurable than striving to know more and more about the world around him. His preference for nonfiction, to the extent of ultimately shunning fiction altogether, then boils down to self-education more than anything else.

In nonfiction, as in fiction, there is no end to the list of books one would like to read. But in the case of nonfiction there is a certain coherence and unity in the process that is lacking when it comes to reading fiction. Because nonfiction deals with the real world, anything read today is inexorably linked with anything else that was read earlier, or will be read in future. Reading nonfiction, then, is akin to seeing different parts of the same bigger picture – the picture of reality in this case – with that picture becoming clearer and fuller in the mind of the reader, ever so slowly but surely.

Let there be no mistake that the intelligent man loves beautiful mornings, enchanting evenings, and the magical colours of nature. He enjoys all these things as much as the next man does. He has no beef with raging fires in the hearts of the young at heart either. In fact, he is not averse to having an occasional fire or two in his own heart as well. But once he figures out how much there is to know and how satisfying and fulfilling the process of knowing is, he inevitably realizes that he has little patience, and even less time, for interminable descriptions of choruses of melodic birdsongs, warmly glowing city streets, the rising sun casting rosy hues across the horizon, and flurries of early-morning activities the bright mornings bring.

In the end, and in fairness to fiction, I owe it to my readers to acknowledge one major merit of fiction, although for all I know that could be true only for me: Fiction helps one go to sleep immediately upon picking up the book, get some well-deserved rest and be up and around for next morning’s chorus of melodic birdsongs, the rising sun casting rosy hues across the horizon, and the flurry of early morning activity the morrow brings.

Hasan Aftab Saeed
Hasan Aftab Saeed
The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at www.facebook.com/hasanaftabsaeed


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