My closest literary friends know that I shy away from reading fiction. Non-fiction is my wheelhouse–it’s what I prefer to read and what I prefer to write. When pressed for a reason why, I’ve often said that I’ve seen too many bizarre events in my own life that I don’t need a make-believe world of someone else’s.
This morning, though, an epiphany. The real reason I can’t abide fiction?
It is a drug.
Earlier this week I started reading a book by an author I despise on a personal level. This author used to be a columnist for the local paper and I found her 10 million kinds of annoying. And then she started publishing books. Which made her 20 million kinds of annoying (granted, mostly borne of jealousy). And then NPR and the New York Times put two of her books on some “Best of 2013” list and that was it. I had to read one of her three books so I could live quietly with my righteous indignation of how much I despised her. She couldn’t possibly be that good.
But she is.
Which now makes her 60 million kinds of annoying because she’s been validated by NPR and the New York Times and, reluctantly, by me.
So this morning, as I’m finishing her book and falling in love with the main characters and seeing so much of myself in the female protagonist, and my heart is smarting a little because of a dumb boy who, last night, pretty much dismissed me for reasons I won’t disclose here but suffice it to say that while it’s for the best, it still makes me feel like God–God who parted the Red Sea and kept Noah afloat and allowed Elijah to bring down fire from Heaven–did not think to create one single man on this God-forsaken planet who might find me lovable, it hits me:
This book is like crack.
Or maybe heroin.
Now, I’ve never done drugs so the analogy is truly lacking any kind of grounding in reality. But from my vast TV and film watching, I understand these highly addictive drugs make their users feel completely blissed out for a period of time, but once the high wears off, there is a crash to earth in which reality seems so much worse than before the initial hit.
And that’s what reading fiction is like for me. It starts out innocently enough, and I tell myself I’m not going to get wrapped up in the lives of these people who don’t exist. So I space out the reading. 10 minutes here, 30 minutes on the treadmill, a couple of days a week. You know, totally casual and not at all habit forming.
But then, something upsetting happens in my real life (and it isn’t always boys–sometimes it’s work related, sometimes family) and to escape, I am freebasing page after page, getting lost in the story and when I read the last page and put down the book, I look around and nothing has changed. The sudden crash back to my reality is such a let-down.
There’s no soft-spoken nerdy yet burly man sitting next to me who, in response to the question “Do you believe in love at first sight?” Answers “Do you believe in love before that?”
(Out of context, maybe it doesn’t sound all that impressive but trust me. My knees buckled when I read that sentence…and I was sitting in bed.)
There’s no sudden fabulous job or new-found success or instant fame.
There’s just me.
I don’t have these same emotions when I read Anne Lamott or stories of actual events (I lovedlovedloved The Girls of Atomic City) or celebrity memoirs (Mindy Kaling +Tina Fey = must reads). These people exist. These events happened. For some reason, it’s not escapist crack-like highs when I read non-fiction. It’s empathy and broadening world-views and learning.
Non-fiction doesn’t make me sigh or swoon or imagine my life in fictitious settings. It makes me think, and most of the time, makes me want to be a better person.
Fiction makes me rant. Like this: