Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Danger of Reading Non-Fiction

woman_reading_a_book_198548     Reading is good.
     Reading fiction can be entertaining and relaxing.
     Reading non-fiction can be educational and illuminating.  Both of which are wonderful things to be.
     There is an implicit danger in non-fiction that the reader must always be aware of.  That danger is accepting what is read as Truth.  Fiction is made-up/make-believe.  The ‘Non’ and hyphen in “non-fiction”mean it’s not fiction so it  must be reality, it’s not make-believe, it must be Truth.  This is where Obi-Wan’s “What I told you was true,…from a certain point of view” should be remembered.
     The author or authors of non-fiction are usually describing or explaining something.
     A biography is describing a person’s life, the environment and decisions that shaped that person’s life.  Bunking or debunking the various myths and legends that have developed around that person.  Did a young George Washington really admit to chopping down a cherry tree?  How many miles and in how much snow did a young Abraham Lincoln walk to return law books he’d borrowed?  What was life on the vaudeville circuit like in the mid-to-late 1920’s when George Burns, Jack Benny and the Marx Brothers were performing on it?  How did those experiences shape their careers in radio, television and live performances?
     A researcher may describe the problem they were trying to solve or the question they wanted to answer. They’ll describe the methodology they used, did they perform interviews?  Did they research and quote earlier works on the subject?  They will explain how their methodology supports or disproves their theory or how it raises more questions leaving their original question unanswered.
     If this non-fiction is well written it will most likely be convincing.  The reader will say, yes, this makes sense.  Abraham Lincoln did walk five miles back and forth to return law books.  That is impressive today.  It shows integrity and reliability.  However, if the reader doesn’t stop to think about the context, if the reader isn’t aware of the language the author uses to describe this characteristic of Lincoln, the reader may be letting themselves be convinced too easily.
     In Lincoln’s youth, to get anywhere everyone had to walk.  Horses were expensive to buy and to keep.  Towns and farmhouses were widely spread out.  Everyone walked miles to get from one place to the next.  Lincoln was not exceptional in this.  And if the author described this as “Lincoln trudged five miles in the snow to …” versus “Lincoln marched five miles in the snow to … or simply “Lincoln walked the five miles….” The reader’s impression of Lincoln will be different.
     When the reader of non-fiction finds an author they like, whose arguments read as sound, whose writing style is found to be pleasing, it’s easy to be lulled into a state almost of disciple hood.  The author is quoted, used as a reference and rarely questioned.   Reading is basically one-way communication. There is only the author’s side of any argument or theory.
     That is why it is the reader’s responsibility to seek out the anti-author, the opposing voice, the different perspective, particularly when the non-fiction author’s words ring true.