I first started reading non-fiction for pleasure when I was around fourteen. I had been a fantasy-dork as a kid but a combination of adolescence and anxiety meant that fiction suddenly became overwhelming. I was internalizing the problems of the characters in the book, ruminating on them long after the last page had been turned, and that was not really helping my over-all life. I needed something different.
That spring I would walk home from school a few afternoons a week, sneaking out the door by the gym instead of getting on my bus. The library was on the way home and I would spend an hour curled up in the young adult non-fiction section. Since I was a semi-closeted deeply repressed young gay kid, I would quietly read books geared at LGBT teens, often hiding them behind an Oprah magazine. 306.766 is the call number, don’t want anyone seeing you looking it up in the online catalog! After I felt a little more validated, I would pack up and walk home to do my homework.
Somehow from LGBT you-have-worth books I made the leap to parenting books. I read a lot of parenting books in high school. Many of them were about homeschooling, or un-schooling, or how to raise confident, fearless children. I guess I was reading about the opposite path my life could have taken, as I had become a public school kid with a lot of fears. But since most of the parenting books were geared towards the parents of young children, this quickly seemed like a dead end. I jumped to popular economics books, Malcolm Gladwell, Oliver Sacks’ psychology and neurology books. I believe I once read a whole book about HTML and then never applied any of it. Self-help books, especially ones about young-ish women getting rid of all their belongings, were a favorite.
It now seems somewhat ironic to me that non-fiction was less anxiety-producing than fiction. Fiction is made-up, not true, yet somehow was so much more relatable to me – this is what caused those ruminations on characters that didn’t exist. Non-fiction books can describe true horrors. But clearly, a book about the financial crisis, while describing events that ruined millions of people’s actual lives, doesn’t provoke that same intense anxiety and empathy.
I never really returned to fiction. There was the summer of Gossip Girl, the semester of Zadie Smith, the required reading for my high school English class. Every so often I would make a good attempt. But mostly I stuck with non-fiction books. I read compilations of essays before bed, struggled through popular history on a Saturday afternoon, frantically consumed every non-fiction word in a New Yorker. That pattern has stuck with me.
I have a book about math (but geared towards a general audience) called Here’s Looking At Euclid that I have read many times over yet each time it feels like I forgot everything. Right now I’m reading The Oath by Jeffrey Toobin, a book about the Supreme Court since 2008. I read it every night before bed and it is simultaneously very interesting and very boring. Like a lot of non-fiction books I read, I find that the moment I finish a chapter I immediately cannot remember anything that happened. (I’ve been trying to talk to my family and friends about what I’m reading to make it stick a little more, but I’m still not really absorbing a lot of information. To people who say reading non-fiction is better because you learn more, I can definitively say nope.)
Often times I like reading boring non-fiction books (or New Yorker articles that I don’t care about) right before bed because it makes it easier to fall asleep – I’m not excited about a plot or feeling empathetic for a character. But I wonder if I’m denying myself the relationship with reading that I had when I was 11. By avoiding fiction, I’m preventing myself from learning about the world in an easy way. I’m preventing myself from developing empathy with characters that I can then bring to reality. I’m preventing myself from emotional journeys that could change my life.
I do love non-fiction (please send me true crime stories about heists and deception). But I need to find the balance again where I’m reading for the right reasons. I shouldn’t be reading this book about the history of money because compelling characters make me anxious, or because I’m trying to fall asleep (though I will always advocate the Goings On About Town section as an a+ panic attack preventer). I want to read with passion, I want to feel excited about the books I’m reading. I’ll probably ease into it with some maybe memoir/maybe not short stories. But I do think I’ll return to some good ol’ novels.