Why I Read Non-Fiction

As a young man I read only fiction. My tastes ranged widely, from Dostoyevsky to Atwood, from Thomas Hardy to John Updike, but it was almost always a novel. Even a short story was somehow ‘beyond the pale.’

These days I read exclusively non-fiction; biography, history, memoir, the odd quasi-scientific text such as The Sixth Extinction.

funkandjazz photo
funkandjazz photo

 

It’s interesting to consider why this change.

My wife and I joke that it is because, in picking up a non-fiction book to continue reading it, even if just 24 hours later, we don’t have to struggle to recall where we left off. (I like to say that, for me, ‘Short term memory is just a fond memory.”) No paging back, trying to pick up the most recent story events. It’s just inherently easier to resume reading a non-fiction text.

It’s also interesting to note that my first choice in visual media back then, in my callow youth, was invariably a dramatic movie. Something with some edge, growing up as I did in the last great decade of American filmmaking (I’m thinking of movies like Midnight Cowboy or Scarecrow), but nevertheless it was a fictional work that I wanted to see on any given, dissolute Saturday night.

And again, these days my viewing preference is usually documentary, though not as consistently as it is when it comes to the written word.

Real as is the phenomenon of short term memory loss with advancing age, I do think the explanation for this transition in taste is slightly more complicated. As a young person, you live in a world of possibility. Your own story is yet to be written, and so an imagined future is simply more compelling to you. We tell one another stories in order to offer one another life lessons, and thus reading about a sympathetic character struggling with a relatable problem becomes not so much a projection of our current life, as it is a counselling, an offered perspective on the prospects for our coming life.

In middle age and beyond, we seek not so much projection as we do comparison. And we’d just as soon the events of the story be real, as opposed to imaginary. What choices did an individual or group make, what were the consequences, good and bad? These are the questions, I think, which tend to preoccupy the older reader. It’s not that the lessons offered by a fictional story aren’t valid—the greater emotional truth of a manipulated story is certainly authentic and useful—it’s only that, in the slowly fading second half of our lives, we’d rather know that the outcome did happen, as opposed to could happen. For us, there’s something just a bit too easy about the imaginary world, with its unmitigated creative freedom.

It’s indefensible, really. More definitive perhaps, more actual of course, but at the same time, this choice of fact before fiction is depreciated, like the brand new car that you drive off the sales lot, only to watch its resale value drop by at least a quarter by the time you park it. I suspect that no history book will ever be more worthy than Macbeth, and that no documentary film will ever exceed The Rules of the Game in its intrinsic value.

No, admittedly, I read non-fiction in order to check in on my fellow human beings in a more literal, less justifiable way. To see who’s fallen, and why. To see who’s triumphed, and what price they paid in order to do so. It’s comforting in an odd, somewhat disconcerting way. To know that no life is perfect, no outcome guaranteed. To see how large a role chance, luck and circumstance play in failure or success. Not that will, hard work and persistence don’t factor in too; they do, especially persistence, but life has never been fair, and you are lucky if you grew up in a circumstance free of abuse or poverty, where you were loved, supported and well cared for. Many people don’t, and many who succeed are driven by neurosis and insecurity and pain that never leave them.

Reading non-fiction is validating, or it isn’t. It will always inform; if well-written it may entertain. Like fiction it must be honest, and if so, in reading it you will be enriched, given insight. It may not excite the way fiction did in your youth, or inspire, or possess the indisputable, ineffable magic that a single passage from James Joyce or Kazuo Ishiguro may proffer, but then it isn’t meant to. It is meant to carry you on, down the road of life to a destination where every reader of every book, and every watcher of every movie is heading too. When you get there, greet your former self with a smile, and maybe give him a shake. Tell him he’s still loved, and then tell him to get on with it. The real thing that is.

Full Circle

There’s some interesting reading to be found in a paper released by the Canadian Media Production Association last week. It’s titled, Content Everywhere: Securing Canada’s Place in the Digital Future, and it offers up an effective survey of the current media landscape. At first glance, suffice it to say that recent trends continue:

* Video progressively rules on the internet—YouTube now has more than one billion unique viewers every month, with 100 hours of video uploaded every minute.

* ‘Cord cutting’, that is escaping the tyranny of cable ‘bundling,’ continues for consumers—an American who owns an iPad now has a 65% likelihood of being a member of the cord cutter tribe.

* As the market penetration of the so-called OTTs (‘Over The Top’ online streamers like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu) continues to grow—one of the OTTs now reaches almost half of all American households; over 60% of the 18 – 24 demographic—they are moving increasingly into the financing of original content.

The ‘old boys’, the established television networks, know all about these trends of course, and so they have, in recent years, moved actively, if still hesitantly into the digital realm. In Canada, Bell Media launched Crave TV in 2014, Rogers and Shaw finally birthed Shomi, and CBC now has an online comedy channel called Punchline. (Conventional TV’s great strength increasingly remains of course in the provision of live events, mostly sports, but also news, and of course the odd award show, although it’s interesting to note that ratings for the Oscars this year were down about 15%.)

Ben Templesmith photo
Ben Templesmith photo

Overall, the evolving picture is of the online media industry maturing, in all the good and bad that that entails. Perhaps most disconcerting is a subtitle within the paper which reads: “Many things about OTT look like TV.” AOL greenlit 16 original series in 2014, all of them featuring major celebrities or movie stars. Pitch meetings with the big-league OTTs are usually booked through agents or entertainment lawyers these days. And we can all be sure that when David Fincher, after House of Cards, pitches his new series, he’ll be strolling into the Netflix offices past a long line of waiting, lesser-known producers who once hoped that the web would provide them with new and different opportunities. Sigh.

And of course, as the paper, points out, creators for the web face a unique set of additional challenges, even as the process morphs into something distressingly familiar. Chief among them are ‘discoverability,’ and an overcrowded marketplace. The gatekeepers for the online game may no longer be the same, but the smaller players still face a huge disadvantage when it comes to putting bums in the seats. They simply don’t have the resources to compete with the big guys at marketing, or at perhaps hiring the talent which comes with a built-in audience.

And finally, if you’re a Canadian hoping to succeed with online content, you face an added problem with financing, because as slow as the big broadcasters have been to move into the online space, the established ‘legacy’ funders, like Telefilm Canada and the tax credit programs, have been even more lead-footed. Because online revenues have been so difficult to realize, these agencies have been extra adept at shuffling their feet and avoiding eye contact whenever, for instance, documentary filmmakers with an online-only audience in mind have come calling.

I’m reminded of the final scenes in George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm, when the pigs move into the farmhouse, begin to walk upright and wear clothes. Or of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s incisive explanation of Why Nations Fail, describing how it is that, following revolutions, tyrants like Robert Mugabe replace tyrants like Ian Smith, how Joseph Stalin replaces Csar Nicolas II. The digital revolution may not have yet completed itself, not yet come right round in what Acemoglu and Robinson term “the vicious circle,” but the streets have gone quiet again. It may be that no one has been sent off to a “knacker” or to the gulag, but if you were among those who dreamed of a better world, or maybe even who manned an online barricade, well, purchase a ticket and get in line. It seems that all along, the digital revolution was for sale, to the highest bidder.