When I was a child, I would debate my reading habits with my grandmother with startling regularity.
“You won’t be an interesting writer unless you read nonfiction!” – My Grandmother.
“Nonfiction is boring and I hate it!” – Myself
At the time, I knew she was right, but I resented her for that. Reading was playtime for me, and trying to make it useful or important, all adult things, would get in the way of that. I found nonfiction boring. And I stand by my decision not to read it, because I might have ruined it for myself later.
Because, as they do for most of us, my tastes changed. Below, I explore that in some detail, including as many landmark books as I can remember from over the years…
As a kid, I adored fantasy. My favourites were “classic fantasy” stories, though even then they were ones that made me think: Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, with its discussions of authority and free will; Margaret Peterson Haddix‘s Just Ella, which took the simplistic story of Cinderella and placed it in a more realistic semi-historical perspective; and Tamora Pierce’s The Circle of Magic/The Circle Opens series, which explored ideas about being different in a world that didn’t quite understand what you are. The above also involved strong female protagonists, something I’ve always been drawn to. So, my childhood love of fiction was useful, though my grandmother didn’t see how: it instilled in me the desire to question, to see things from another light, and ensured I grew up with a deep respect for strong women, something easy to do surrounded by a grandmother, mother and two older sisters growing up.
As I entered high school, my tastes shifted to literary fiction. I continued to seek out strong female protagonists, falling in love with the complicated women at the centre of Janet Fitch‘s White Oleander and Gregory Maguire‘s Wicked, both of which are favourites of mine to this day. I encountered Wally Lamb and devoured I Know This Much is True; I couldn’t get through Barbara Kingsolver’s acclaimed Poisonwood Bible, but adored her Prodigal Summer. I also started my most cynical phase, reading a glut of Chuck Palahnuik – burning through Fight Club, Diary and Lullaby in quick succession, before getting halfway through Haunted,
putting it down and never really feeling the need to go back to Palahnuik, despite my appreciation for those other three. Maguire I had more luck with, both in his continued books following his Wicked storyline, and in his other fairytale reappropriations, like Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, which I adored.
Edited to Add: I also fell in love with the works of seminal Canadian writer Margaret Atwood: Oryx and Crake, The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye, The Blind Assassin and, my personal favourite, The Robber Bride.
(I never had much of a taste for the classics. The closest I came was: my aborted attempt at reading Les Miserables in elementary school after falling in love with the musical, and my fascination with Dostoevsky in my first year of high school, polishing off The Brothers Karamazov despite very likely not understanding it at all. As my sense of the historical world was vague, the classics bored and confused me.)
As I matured, the world started getting more interesting to me. I became entranced by stories that told me about the world, not just about the deep emotional stories of their protagonists. Laura Joh Rowland‘s Sano Ichiro Investigates series and Robert Golden‘s Memoirs of a Geisha engaged my curiosity about Japan, leading me to seek out Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha Who Bewitched the West by Lesley Downer, and search the aisles of my local Chapters bookstore for books on Japanese history. I also read Jung Chang‘s Wild Swans, a captivating biography of three generations of Chinese women, including Chang herself. I loved Wild Swans, and learned so much that I waited patiently for Mao: The Unknown Story, her follow-up biography of the Chinese leader who was prominent in Swans. I read Mao back-to-back with Jon Anderson‘s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life in my final summer before university started. Though I finished neither, over the course of a summer I reached the halfway point of both; someday, hopefully someday soon, I’ll go back and finish them.
That’s when my love of nonfiction started. Soon enough, I was devouring nonfiction and had all but left fiction behind. After all, I’d fallen hard for scripted television over my last few years at high school, so I was consuming my fiction in that way. While fiction developed my sense of character and emotion, I found nonfiction was doing something school had never done: engaging my interest in the world around me, and educating me about it.
(Yes, school never really educated me. It was a series of tests I pushed through to escape, and honestly if I were handed any of my tests from Grades 9-12 right now, I doubt I’d pass more than a handful of them. The classes that left their mark were my English classes, which didn’t teach me facts, but instead how to think, and how to read critically, skills I’ll use and develop forever.)
Many of my favourite books in recent years have been nonfiction. My possibly all-time favourite book is Oliver Sacks‘ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, a lively and intimate look at a series of neurological problems that question and reveal what it really means to be human. Standouts from my bookshelf include Malcolm Gladwell‘s Blink and Outliers, Brian Goldman‘s The Night Shift exploring a night in Mt. Sinai’s emergency ward; the works of Richard Florida exploring The Rise of the Creative Class; Leonard Mlodinow‘s exploration of luck and randomness, The Drunkard’s Walk; Mark J. Penn‘s Microtrends, looking at how small trends mean big things; and The Conversations, a book-long interview between author Michael Ondaatje and film editor Walter Murch. I’m currently fielding a slate of nonfiction books including Sacks‘ Island of the Colorblind, about Sacks traveling to some Pacific islands where colorblindness is much more common; Haruki Murakami‘s Underground, which chronicles the Tokyo Gas Attack in 1995; John Perkins‘ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, which explains how international consulting firms can cripple counties in order to make them dependent on and indebted to the United States; and Molly Peacock‘s The Paper Garden, biography of the 1700s artist Mary Delany, who at the age of 72 created the mixed-media collage. I also have to track down and finish Bring On the Books For Everybody by Jim Collins, an exploration of how literary culture recently developed into a popular culture; I borrowed it from a library and never went back to finish it off after returning it. I’ve picked up George Pelecanos‘ A Firing Offense and Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom, both fiction, though I’m hoping both will hook me more once I’ve gotten further in.
In addition, I’ve been picking up books that should, by right, bore the pants off me, and yet find them enjoyable reading. Stuff like Show Sold Separately, Jonathan Gray‘s exploration of how ‘paratexts’ like movie trailers and spoilers have an effect on how we watch the work itself; The Television Will Be Revolutionized (Amanda D. Lotz) and Relocating Television (edited by Jostein Grisprug), both of which I picked up to explore how television is changing as a medium and as a technology; and a series of essays on one of television’s most realistic series, The Wire: Urban Decay and American Television edited by Tiffany Potter
and C.W. Marshall. Over the past two years I haven’t had the chance to finish any of these, but that’s more a reflection of my busy life than it is of their quality.
Recently, at a library sale where books were available for a dollar, I picked up a whole bunch of history texts that intrigued me. The two history books I’m digging into that I have on hand are Arctic Revolution: Social Change in the Northwest Territories, 1935-1994, by John David Hamilton, and Defend the Realm, Christopher Andrew‘s comprehensive official history of Britain’s espionage service, MI5. They might sound specific. They are, in fact, and that’s what really hooked me into them. Comprehensive and enlightening detail about parts of history I don’t know that much about. There’s another four or five from that sale sitting at a friend’s house, and I can’t wait to dig into them.
Reading has been a huge part of my life. I absolutely love it, and wish I hadn’t let it fall by the wayside these past few years. Looking forward to getting back into it.