The OF Blog: 2010 in Review: Non-Fiction

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2010 in Review: Non-Fiction

For the first twenty-three years of my life (and truly since the age of 5, when I began reading), non-fictions dominated most of my readings.  While the majority of those readers and bloggers at SF/F-oriented blogs probably had some sort of "gateway" fantasy (Tolkien, Brooks, Feist, Donaldson, McKillip, etc.) in their middle school or high school years, for me it was always about histories.  I would check out all of the narrative histories that my small town library had or I would read and re-read my dad's high school world history texts (I found, and still find, American History to be less exciting).  When I went to the University of Tennessee, I actually read the vast majority of the books assigned to me in my history classes.  Up until the end of grad school, I was pretty much a non-fiction junkie.

Then I burned out on my studies.  Since December 1997, I have read maybe a couple dozen non-fictions combined over those years, none of them really true histories.  Lately, however, I have felt the love for those real places and spaces, for those oddball and utterly banal human lives, return.  Although I still did not read many non-fictions this past year, I did read at least twice as many 2010 non-fiction releases compared to most any single year since 1997.  Even better, each of the six non-fictions I read entertained me in some form or fashion.

The first 2010 non-fiction I read was Thomas Ligotti's The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.  Those familiar with Ligotti's short fictions know that his stories are dark, disturbing tales whose power is contained not so much in the actual events of these horrors but in the implications these acts have for us and how we interact with the world.  In The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Ligotti has written a measured, reflective practical philosophy that examines the fallacies and delusions that beset human beings.  In the chapter "Who Goes There?," Ligotti discusses the research of neurologist Thomas Metzinger has done into human consciousness and the self-delusions the human mind has done.  The passage quoted below is representative of this book and Ligotti's approach toward several sensitive topics:

Even in the twenty-first century there are people who are incapable of abiding Darwin's theory unless they can reconcile it with their Creator and His design.  Losing hold of these shielding eidolons would make them honor-bound to become unhinged, so they might say, because the world as they knew it would molder away in their palsied arms.  Unprepared to receive the evidence, they run from it as any dreamer runs from a horror at his heels.  They think that when this horror closes in on them they will die of madness to see its shape and know the touch of what they believe should not be.  No doubt they would survive the experience, as so many have done before them.  We have already weathered torrents of knowledge we were not meant to know yet were doomed to know.  But how much more can we take?  How will the human race feel about knowing that there is no human race - that there is no one?  Would this be the end of the greatest horror tale ever told?  Or might it be the reinstatement of the way things had been before we had lives of our own? (pp. 112-113)

Even though it has been nearly a half-year since I read The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, some of its postulations trouble me even today.  It certainly is a book for those who want to read a non-fiction in the vein covered by Scott Bakker's Neuropath, but with deeper and more troubling issues than raised in that quasi-polemic novel.

In early October I read Tucker Max's Assholes Finish First.  Although I am uncertain to what degree he might have embellished some of his outrageous escapades, all I know is that I laughed and laughed aloud even at several passages detailing just how much of an asshole he could be to people, particularly shallow, insecure women who wanted to sleep with the idea of the celebrity Tucker than with the actual, complex human being.  It certainly is not a book that I would recommend to the majority of people, but for those who are in touch with their Inner Asshole and who have a sometimes-deviant sense of humor that can be devoid of that so-called "political correctness," then Assholes Finish First might be the sort of book for you to read and enjoy as a (not-so) guilty pleasure.

In November, after reading a brief bit about it on Jeff VanderMeer's blog, I ordered and read John Vaillant's The Tiger, which is a true-life event recast into a novel form, similar to how Norman Mailer wrote his 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning true-life novel, The Executioner's Song, from recorded interviews and documentary evidence.  In The Tiger, the weeks leading up to and surrounding a Siberian Tiger's attack on a remote Russian village in the Far East region of the country are told in a vivid, moving way.  Vaillant intersperses references to the scarcity of the Siberian Tiger, its connections to local folklore and religious belief, as well as telling the backstories of the principal characters involved in this tragic hunt.

While I was reading Vaillant's book, I alternated chapters of ethnologist and "last speaker" recorder K. David Harrison's The Last SpeakersFor years I have been fascinated by the complexity and near-endless variety of grammars, syntaxes, and semantic expressions found in the thousands of extant human languages.  Harrison's stories of various languages on the edge of linguistic extinction and how "last speakers" across the globe have preserved their languages (and with them, elements of their traditional cultures) through dominant culture pressures is fascinating.  Certainly a work that has me curious to read more of Harrison's books on the subject, as this was a general survey of his chosen field of study.

Patti Smith's National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids, detailing her life from 1967-1974 with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, is very worthy of that august honor.  Smith tells a touching tale, lyrical at times in her descriptions of life in New York City during a tumultuous period of radical culture shifts and changes, of her once-lover Mapplethorpe and his struggles to understand his sexuality and what it meant for their relationship.  It is bracingly honest without devolving into accusations, embellishments, or perceived cover-ups.  It is a romance that belongs as much to agape as to eros and for that, it is a memoir that truly lives up to its etymology.

Finally, I just finished reading Sarah Bakewell's How to Live or A Life of Montaigne, which is a biography of the 16th century French writer whose Essays changed the very meaning of the word "essay."  In the twenty-one chapters of this biography, she explores each of the Essays in light of Montaigne's life and how his experiences were reflected in his writings.  Historical biographies risk being irrelevant, if not outright boring, if the biographer cannot connect the audience with the subject.  Bakewell does an outstanding job making Montaigne relevant and portraying his Essays as being vital and of paramount importance to us over four hundred years after his death in 1592.  It might just be the best historical biography that I have read in the past decade and it certainly is a fitting conclusion to a series of strong non-fiction reads that I had in the past couple of months.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Larry: I'm not quite sure why you keep calling the tiger book a novel. It's clearly within the bounds of normal nonfiction.

Curmudgeonly,

JeffV

Larry said...

I called it a non-fiction novel because I felt that it used certain techniques (especially how the narrative was constructed) that are more in line with fiction novels than with regular non-fiction books. That and I recall hearing Vaillant's novel being called such elsewhere.

Amy said...

I've heard of all of these books, so excited about that. I've only read (and enjoyed!) The Tiger though out of the list. Glad to hear the others were good as well.

Anonymous said...

Larry:

I won't say this as strongly as I would otherwise given what happened to Tennessee yesterday, but in no way is The Tiger any different from any other nonfiction book of this type. It is put together through research and first-hand accounts. I think it's misleading to call it fiction.

JeffV

Larry said...

Jeff,

I'm not calling it a fiction. Just merely noting that it's a non-fiction work whose narrative structure reminds me more of a novel than a history. It's a nebulous term, I'll agree, but it's not one that I invented, nor am I implying that it's fictionalized in any fashion. I wonder if the contentious point deals with me comparing it to Mailer's The Executioner's Song, which won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction despite being based on Mailer's interviews with the friends and family of Gary Gilmore. I think of that book as being a non-fiction rather than a fiction as well.

But I do agree firmly that Vaillant's book is non-fiction, or else I'd have posted about it elsewhere.

 
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