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Getting your facts straight

12th March 2012 - Lisa Bird

 

Lisa Bird had been a devoted fiction reader since childhood, someone who rarely found cause to read non-fiction beyond what her academic studies required. But recently, she's discovered that there's a lot more satisfaction to be gained from reading abot the real world than she'd ever imagined.

 

If you had asked me a few years ago what I enjoyed reading, my answer would have been the same I'd have given you as a teenager or a young child: fiction. Any kind of fiction, be it literary, commercial, fantastical or crime; I didn't believe in being fussy about it, just as I wouldn't turn my nose up at a particular genre of music or film. I've always read with a hunger that neither my local library or bank account could sustain, and I suppose that becoming a bookseller was a natural development, but it wasn't until the point that I started working with books - and, more importantly, seeing other people's reading choices - that I realised there was a gaping hole at the centre of my reading life.


Notes from a Small Island by Bill BrysonUntil fairly recently, 'non-fiction' books were, for me, one of two things: funny or educational. As a teenager I developed a taste for Bill Bryson's travel writing, but at no point did I branch out into other travelogues - it was his humour that I liked, not necessarily his subjects. Reading for school rarely covered anything more than basic textbooks, but I was lucky enough to have a history teacher whose passion for his subject, and his determination to teach a bunch of A-Level students to an undergraduate level, led me to discover that history writing could be more than just educational. For the first time I was reading in order to learn and enjoying it.


And yet, despite these early and overall positive forays into the world beyond fiction, reading non-fiction for pleasure simply didn't occur to me. Other than the odd music biography, which I considered as just another facet of my interest in music rather than books, I read virtually nothing other than fiction titles for the majority of my teens and twenties. Customers asking me for advice on anything else would find me citing a title's bestseller status by way of recommendation, or seeking a more well-read colleague to help them with a genre which, with a shrug of apology, I just didn't read.

 

Quirkology by Richard WisemanAnd then something changed. I'd just moved to a new part of London and was wandering the shelves of my new local library, feeling all the vim and vigour that moving house can often bring, when a book caught my eye. I'd seen it plenty of times in the shop, of course; had sold many copies, had conversations with customers and colleagues about it; I just hadn't considered reading it myself. But now, in the spirit of trying new things, I checked it out.
It was Professor Richard Wiseman's Quirkology, and I loved it. I was learning things, things I could talk to people about, things that I didn't know before! I had, almost completely by accident, stumbled on a reason to read non-fiction, which had hitherto been something of a mystery to me (why read something real when you could escape into a world of fantasy?), and I was hooked.

 

Over the next couple of years, I started picking out the odd non-fiction title to read - always something that interested me, or I felt that I had some connection to - with varying degrees of enjoyment and success. It's a sad fact that I often measure my enjoyment of a book by how long it takes me to read it (Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White took me an entire month and, whilst I'm glad I read it, I wouldn't say I was enjoying the experience by the time I reached that fourth week; Scarlett Thomas' The End of Mr Y took me less than a day), and I started to discover that I could race through a non-fiction title almost as quickly as I could a fiction one; it just had to be right for me.


I also discovered that non-fiction could inspire in me a type of passion and interest that fiction only could at its absolute best: a good non-fiction book makes me want to do things, whereas an excellent fiction book invariably just makes me wish I could start it again. I started to see why people might shun fiction altogether - why read something made up when you could be actively involving yourself in contemporary thought, theory and discussion? Why lose a week of your life to a fantasy when you could learn something new about the real world?


Living Dolls by Natasha WalterThe last couple of years have truly been an epiphany for me. I've delved into science (well, Ben Goldacre's Bad Science), politics (Andrew Rawnsley's The End of the Party, Owen Jones' Chavs and Ed Howker and Shiv Malik's The Jilted Generation) and language (Filthy English by Peter Silverton and the success story of last Christmas, Mark Forsyth's dizzily entertaining The Etymologicon), with a healthy dose of gender studies and feminism on the way thanks to Natasha Walter, Cordelia Fine and Caitlin Moran. I now have conversation starters that I didn't before, can argue points that previously I had no evidence to support and, thanks again to Professor. Wiseman, no longer need to worry about the supernatural (Paranormality - a great book to read if you've ever doubted all things paranormal; just don't expect horror films to be any fun afterwards).


Which isn't to say that I don't still read fiction: only seven of the dozens of books I read last year were non-fiction (and two of those were music biographies - still a tried and tested favourite). My favourite books of the year were all fiction, and I continued to find that the non-fiction titles slowed me down; I was devouring up to three fiction books a week at one point, whilst even the shortest non-fiction book took at least a week's reading. But this year seems to have seen a real shift: of the seven books I've read so far, only two have been fiction. For the first time, I'm struggling to find the motivation to read a novel, whilst non-fiction choices are piling up around me. The more I read, the more I want to know.


The Emperor of MaladiesI'm glad that my reading habits have changed, and that my tastes are now more all-encompassing than they were. I have yet to embark on serious biography, history, travel writing or reportage, although I have an inkling that the latter would be a particularly interesting genre, having had a taste of it in recent issues of Granta. I've found that I have a more serious curiosity for science than I would ever have imagined, and in particular medical science, although this might be due to the fact that I just read Siddhartha Mukherjee's beautiful 'biography of cancer', The Emperor of All Maladies; a book which heralded my discovery that non-fiction can be written with the same subtlety, grace and studied composition as the most literary of fiction.


Most importantly, rather than disappearing into the books I read, I'm finally actively engaging in the world around me, reading about the issues that affect me, and discovering opinions that I know will help to make me a more rounded individual. Of course, it might all come down to the simple fact that I'm getting older; seeing as I'm heading towards my thirties, getting married in a couple of months and generally taking stock of my life, perhaps it's inevitable that my reading choices reflect that. Whatever the reason, I'm more than happy that my horizons have broadened just that little bit further, even if only because it gives me the chance to read even more.

 

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