Monday, June 18, 2012

In Praise of Reading Non-Fiction

Last week, I picked up some uncharacteristic reading material, namely Jeffrey Schwartz's The Mind & the Brain, a popular treatment of the philosophical implications of neuroplasticity. Pretty heady stuff (no pun intended) for someone used to reading stories about men with guns or unspeakable horrors from beyond time and space. But you know what? I'm finding that a little non-fiction goes a long way toward helping me enjoy the world of make believe, and here are few reasons why.

First, fiction isn't the stuff of life. Rather, it's about that stuff. Everyone agrees that you need to read a lot if you want to write great fiction, but we also need to fill our days with, well, everyday things. Sometimes my creativity soars after I've simply played with the kids or eaten lunch with a friend -- or read something informative.

Another point: If you buy the argument that themes invariably inhabit every line of text, then you'll probably want to ensure that you're at least self-consciously inserting them in your fiction. Too often authors produce titles containing unclear or even warring motifs. A healthy dose of non-fiction can foster a more propositional mindset.

Finally, every piece of genre fiction -- no matter if it lands in the fantasy, horror, SF or crime fiction bin -- needs more than characters, themes, a plot and a setting. Those elements require details, all the little niggling bits of information that you forget about until time comes to put pen to paper. Say you've got a protagonist. Now he or she needs a job. Let's say the individual works construction. Sounds simple enough to write. But what sort of construction? Drywall installation, cement masory, pipe fitting, glaziery -- there's a whole alphabet soup of construction types. Now we're always going to have to do research for our stories, but reading a wide array of non-fiction might just job your memory at the right time.

Of course, there are many more reasons than just these three. Tell me, dear readers, do you ever break out of fiction's ghetto and (if so) why?

(Picture: CC 2009 by deadstar 2.1)


Tony said...

I read books on economic (classic and otherwise) issues constantly, and oftentimes the best arguments approach careful historical timelines as narratives to better lead the reader to their conclusions. Anyway, I feel like I've learned to better develop plot by reading real history. I'm sure I'm not the only one.

YA Sleuth said...

I'm a magazine reader. Sometimes it's just the brainless stuff, but sometimes I'll read a National Geographic article, or something in Wired Magazine that gets me inspired. You're right: non-fiction can spur creativity in a big way.

B. Nagel said...

Just this weekend I read a thesis about the decline of passenger rail in the second quarter of the 20th century. Now, I'll be honest, it's partial research for a story.

But it's also good to punch up the variety in your reading. Otherwise, you end up always thinking 'chocolate' when you hear 'ice cream' instead of 'let's try the pistachio almond tonight, or maybe the coffee.' (Silly Putty Metaphor Achieve!)

Loren Eaton said...


Honestly, I wish more writers read books on economics, because so many tend to produce worlds that produce, like, one good or service -- and still manage to thrive! Silly stuff.

Loren Eaton said...


Ditto for me, except with newspapers. I read a lot of The Wall Street Journal, and it gives me tons of writing ideas.

Loren Eaton said...


All hail! B. returns!

Pistachios are always superior to chocolate. And that has nothing to do with the fact that we grow them. Really.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I'm curious about the book itself. How was it? Did it have anything to say (good or ill) about Mark Johnson's "Philosophy of the Mind"?

I obviously read non-fiction professionally, and find that I often think through the same issue in nonfiction and in fiction. I don't think of it as a case of "write what you know" so much as "write about really complex issues that fascinate you." My first vampire story was as much about the mind-body connection and theological issues of the soul as it was about homemade explosives and the effects of expensive firearms on the undead--at least in my mind. (And of course this is ALWAYS a theme in violent fiction--it is a whole genre obsessed with the effects of bodily destruction on human beings and their souls.)

My first SF story is inspired partially by poets such as Seamus Heaney or Derek Walcott, and the way their poetry put them in tension with the communities where they grew up.

And of course I have written about a Guinevere whose personality owes much to both "Power, Piety and Patronage in Late Medieval Queenship" (a HIGHLY readable academic biography of a Spanish queen) and the even more fascinating (but highly technical) "Chaucerian Polity: Absolutist Lineages and Associational Forms in England and Italy." (Useful, these books--it's not like Malory gives us much to grasp hold of.)

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Oh, more argumentatively--what's wrong with having contrasting themes? Hamlet seems like the greatest example of this, a work stuffed so full of contradictory and different themes that it overflows, but also a work infinitely successful because of its rugged contradictions and complex reality.

(Seriously, though--is the theme that "there is providence in the fall of a sparrow," and Hamlet must accept that? Is the theme that life is unbearable, but an uncertain afterlife worse ("there's the respect / that makes calamity of so long a life")? That death is irrational and the best we can make of it is to joke ("alas, poor Yorik, I knew him, Horatio, a man of infinite jest")? Is it that of a Reformation-era scholar confronted with a corrupt and decadent nation? Is Hamlet's indecisiveness and anxiety a mark of his considerate soul, or a sign that the realm really does need the young, virile counter-revolutionary Fortinbras? What about Ophelia's story?

Hamlet is a thematic mess, and I'm sure Aristotle or Sophocles would find them to be unspeakably confused. Yet it is a beautiful mess, and seems to show that a work can draw energy from the discordance of its themes rather than requiring everything to line up.

Simon Kewin said...

Oh yes, for sure. I love breaking out into books about quantum physics, say, or genetics. And there are plenty of story ideas to be found in books like that ...

S.D. Smith said...

I read a lot of history, because I believe it sort of helps me appreciate the scope and depth of the story God is telling through the ages. I also read non-fiction as a way of guarding against ignorance and folly, as much as possible. I agree with you that, it sort of arms a person in ways a person needs arming.

Great post, as usual, Loren.

Loren Eaton said...


I don't remember Johnson's work popping up. Overall, I enjoyed the book, although I got a little lost in the bits about quantum interactions in the brain. Still, I like that Schwartz hold to some sort of brain / mind dichotomy. It's refreshing to see in a scientist.

Regarding themes, it's fine if they contrast. Often an author will force readers to consider an issue more critically by putting two essentially likeable characters with diametrically opposed viewpoints in conflict with one another. I'm referring to works that show a less thoughtful composition, those that contain outright, unexamined contradictions.

Loren Eaton said...


I really ought to study quantum mechanics a bit more. All I basically know at the moment is that the cat is supposed to be dead and not dead until I open the box.

Poor kitty ...

Loren Eaton said...


History's good stuff. I was perusing a volume about Byzantine history a while back. Does make me glad I live in our current era.

Chestertonian Rambler said...


My take on the mind-body dichotomy (or soul-body) is an odd one. Most cognitive psychologists have come to a realization that the "mind" is something beyond the brain--nonreductive materialists tend to refer to it as an "emergent property" of the human body (i.e. the mind differs from the brain in roughly the way that the internet differs from thousands of miles of wires, resistors, &c.)

I honestly can't see any significant difference between this and Aquinas's Aristotle-informed notion that the soul and body are inseparable, just as a "form" cannot exist without some matter to be placed into that "form."

I think the real conflict between psychology and religion came from early psychiatrists who had a ridiculously inflated sense of themselves and thought that their simple principles could account for all of human behavior. Fortunately, such views are falling out of favor.

(That said, I do think that current cognitive theory poses serious problems for some branches of philosophy, especially those linked closely to Descartes, Plato or others who rely on the idea that human beings are (or ought to be) masters of rationality. Fortunately, the idea is so alien to a common-sense view of the world that there are many alternate perspectives.)