Non-fiction for pleasure

OK, so now I’ve had two humanities people tell me more or less categorically that non-fiction reading is not pleasure reading. (The first instance prompted much of what I’ve written here in the past year and a half; the second came initially as a comment on this weblog.) I would not have expected that particularly of humanities people, honestly. I suppose I had assumed that English or classics or folklore majors and suchlike were more likely to be into any and all reading.

In both cases there has been the clarification that the information gained (“understanding stuff about the world”) may give one pleasure “even when reading about it feels like work.” And yet … this still implies that the readers approach vast categories of written documents strictly from a utilitarian point of view—news, debate, most forms of essay, and (most pertinently to these discussions) academic and non-academic book-length works: pop science and ethnography, self-help and philosophy, history and historiography, history of science, biography, literary and art criticism, poli-sci. It truly does surprise me if the ‘not-for-pleasure’ category is that broad for either elisabeth or the grad student who told me she doesn’t read non-fiction.

I am accustomed to expansive, voracious, and usually compulsive reading from my close associates in the hard sciences and social sciences. My dad, an old-school sysadmin, keeps on hand nearly the complete œvres of Faulkner, Vonnegut, Lessing, and Erdrich (one of his most evocative comments on the last: “… so fierce that I can frankly understand her husband committed suicide“). He also keeps a personal subscription to Science magazine, setting himself the goal of understanding one article per issue (an ambitious goal that is by far not always reached). The mother of a mathematician friend had to set a rule during middle school that she would select every other book for his pleasure reading: she chose good classic YA, he plowed through the local library’s math collection. This is the same person who introduced me to The Ancestor’s Tale and, on my recommendation, read The Archivist in a day and a half. My little brother, a history-major-turned-‘financial-analyst’ of whom I was seriously proud when he started (with The Fourth Hand) recommending to me books based on his own taste, is an Andrew Jackson buff who is also my original source for King Leopold’s Ghost. A chemistry undergrad friend of mine, now in graduate school, recruited friends for ‘salon’ book groups in two states in which he’s recently lived.

King Leopold’s Ghost and The Ancestor’s Tale are both written with exceptional clarity, perceptiveness, and outreach towards the audience. I have actually “grown” a favoritism for interdisciplinary non-fiction author Steven Johnson, and have wished that I had been a Harvard undergrad more recently so I could have become a disciple of Daniel Lord Smail, whose academic training is in 14th-century French legal documents, but who also is passionately advocating for historians to claim as their field all of human history, the way they used to before Western culture imagined how many orders of magnitude longer than Biblical history all is.

And non-fiction can inspire such awe—often for its subjects (Catherine of Aragon or the early epidemiological triumph of 1854 London, and more shrouded figures/incidents such as Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore, and the training of medical residents), but also for the brilliance of the research (Montaillou) or the mind (An Experiment in Criticism).

Truly … people can dismiss all the vast variety of non-fiction as not intended for pleasure reading? Is this another case where I am failing to understand what kind of pleasures others seek from their reading?


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