In the 1990s, one of my co-workers at a bookshop used to relocate the paperback sci-fi books inspired by “The X-Files” television series from the Fiction/Sci-Fi section to the Nonfiction/Science section. This was not something she did to be ironic or otherwise witty; she did not know that the books were “made-up” and thought the TV series was a documentary.
She told me one day in a flurry of words that people needed to know the truth about how the world is. I agreed, but I did not tell her what truth I thought “people” should “know”: What was true was I considered her nuts. When I pointed out that the publisher itself labeled the books as fiction, she replied that this was a sure sign of the cover-up, that the publishing house was doing its part to stay safe.
One day, I left the books in the non-fiction section and watched as a customer moved them back to Fiction/Sci-Fi. Another day, I watched as my genre-confused co-worker became an ex-employee of the bookstore.
* * * *
Alf Evers was the historian of the Catskills region in upstate New York. His long (so long it is almost cube-shaped) history, “The Catskills,” was the first definitive text about the area when it was published in 1972. The book is definitive but it is not the resource to turn to if one is searching for dollar figures or numbers of acres. Oh, those appear here and there, when needed, but they are not often needed. Instead, he is a grand storyteller. Here is his epic opening for the chapter entitled, “Made of Wood”:
When permanent settlers arrived in the Catskills, the mountains’ trees began to move out. Before human beings became part of the society of living things which surrounds and covers the Catskills, trees rarely left the mountains. Each tree struggled to live and reproduce on its birthplace and, if it escaped fire, wind, competition from its fellows, and insect and fungus attack, it lived out its destined span of life and died. Then its body would be taken apart by bacteria, fungi, and flying and wriggling things, and it would returned to the earth to become the building material of new bodies. Indians had carried away parts of trees: the gum of the balsam fir for medicine or to calk canoes, maple syrup to sweeten their diet; or bits of wood well adapted to one purpose or another. But this had caused no visible change in the Catskills’ forests. Nor had John Bartram‘s gathering of seeds and seedlings for his British landscape-gardening customers. But when the first settlers and their sawmills appeared, things began to change.
Scene: set. A history of Catskills lumbering follows, but as we read on we carry with us the reminder that each individual tree, cut down or left alone, had and has its own life story. Human beings, Native Americans and European settlers alike, are given much the same respect by Evers, and he reminds us often that there are many individual stories that make the numbers, the quotidian facts, the real part of “real life.”
(I had the honor of interviewing Mr. Evers once. He was in his 90s and hard of hearing and sight but lived on his own in a book-lined and -furnished cabin in Shady, New York. [Yes, that is a real place name.] He passed away in 2004, a few weeks shy of his 100th birthday. The magazine for which I was interviewing Mr. Evers folded before the interview was published and I wrote it many computers ago, so it is long lost.)
The facts, the numbers of life, the details that fill the ledgers in which we count our ups and downs, those can trap some historians. There are some who can make a reader feel like they are doing no better than reading someone’s checkbook for themselves, with no context supplied. Raw facts are not Evers’ concern; he had obviously studied the various deeds and checkbooks and then digested the information and knew a good story when he had one to tell.
A good story. That is the concern of any writer, whether he or she is engaged in fiction or non-fiction. James Joyce by Richard Ellmann is one of the great biographies. It is so detailed and crammed full with letters written by and to Joyce that one sometimes thinks that it might take one as long as Joyce’s 58 years alive to read it. It is often a fun and funny book, and Ellmann certainly knew he had a good life story to tell. (I do not know why there has not yet been a film biography of Joyce’s life; perhaps because it did not end with a sweet redemptive moment, Joyce winning an award, for instance.) Joyce’s novels (his fiction) are enhanced by the experience of reading the biography. And reading Ellmann’s biography is enhanced by reading and loving Joyce’s novels.
Some of the best non-fiction reads like fiction and some of the best fiction reads like non-fiction. That does not mean “The X-Files” books can go in the Science section.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for September 29 asks, “When reading for fun, do you usually choose fiction or non-fiction? Do you have an idea why you prefer one over the other?”