Anyone who has ever publicly confessed to enjoying books can anticipate the next question: “so what do you like to read?” The usual assumption is that, of course, we read stories, whether they be Westerns, mysteries, fantasy, historical fiction, literary novels, or romance. Some might add memoirs to the list since those also tell a story, a “true” story. Others, though, prefer poetry, history, philosophy, theology, or political and cultural analysis, without necessarily understanding that those genres, too, tell stories.
My reading life certainly began with what was called “story-books,” although I was taught, from the cradle on, to revere the Bible. Of course, what I heard from my Sunday School teachers was stories: the Creation, the Flood, the Exodus, Daniel in the lions’ den, Jesus healing sick children or walking on water. So stories it was, and I read whatever I could find.
Besides wanting to find out what would happen next, I delighted in the voice of the story-teller. From Thornton Burgess’ talking animal stories and the Black Stallion books to the teen Beany Malone series, it was the familiar characters that held my attention; they were like friends.
But I also grew to appreciate individual authors’ views of the world, mediated through a variety of characters. Even Thomas Hardy’s astonishingly bleak outlook on life compelled me to keep reading his novels. No surprise then, that I eventually found my way into a career of reading novels and talking about them. While I also taught drama, poetry, and essays, novels remained my chosen bedtime reading.
The sole exception was devotional reading. Childhood training had born its fruit, and I read books and books about what being a Christian meant. Thus my faith competed with story for my attention. Or did it? I don’t remember just when I understood that theology was also story, with God as the main character. As Frederick Buechner observed, the grand narrative of Christianity can be read as comedy, tragedy, or fairy tale, each genre lens yielding truth to live by.
Actually, my reading choices were not as unchanging as I have so far implied. In both fiction and theology, I became impatient with predictability and easy answers. The pleasures of formulaic stories are limited, because they rely on superficial otherness (exotic settings, improbable plot lines), while reinforcing a simplistic distinction between goodness and badness through cardboard characters and too-easy happy endings. My tastes were evolving into a demand for greater scientific literacy and more mysticism in theology, and for honest engagement with human issues in fiction—for literature offers truth at a deeper level than facts do.
Just how much I had changed, I didn’t grasp until retirement removed the academic pressure to stay current in my field. I rejoiced that I now had the time, finally, to read as many novels as I wanted to, never mind the literary quality. Expecting to return to former habits of happy escapist reading, I was quite unprepared for what did happen.
I’ve read far fewer novels. Instead, I’ve bought poetry books for bedtime reading, and ignored my accumulated collection of novels in favour of reading magazines like The Atlantic, Harpers, Mother Jones. I’ve read more and more books on culture and religion and politics in Canada and the USA. That doesn’t mean that I’ve exchanged fiction for facts.
After all, “non-fiction” is something of a misnomer; there is always an author(s) who selects the facts to be discussed, who assumes a narrative voice for particular purposes, and who shapes that material into a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion. So it does, in the end, come down to story. I’m just choosing different ones more often than I used to.
Perhaps an analogy from literal tastes can be instructive. In late summer and autumn I delight in the bounty of food at Saskatoon’s farmers markets, particularly the offerings of Little Quill Orchard. Delicious as the peaches and apricots are, I wait also for early autumn’s varieties of apples, many available only for a mere two weeks. They’re not “keepers,” but oh, the taste of Sunrise apples is redolent with the mature warmth of the end of summer.
For most of my life, I ignored the similar bounty of pears. When I was a child, my palate had unequivocally rejected both flavour and texture. Fruit lover that I normally was, I could not abide pears. So I did not eat pears, did not buy pears, did not offer our children pears. Imagine my recent embarrassment then to discover, after my son persuaded me to try his pear gingerbread cake, that I liked it. Since I was then regularly baking scones for a small market, I tried pear cranberry scones – delicious! Pears now often appear in our fruit bowl, reminding me that tastes evolve; I should pay attention.
In the past three years, I’ve begun reading memoirs, a genre I once disliked almost on principle, thanks to propagandistic missionary stories urged on me when I wasn’t old enough to protest safely; I resented the pious pressure to be inspired. With a fine irony, I was eventually drawn in by stories of the opposite experience—the departure from an inherited faith. First it was Karen Armstrong’s exit from the convent, then other accounts of disillusionment and drastic changes in worldview. Yet these people still found life worth living and often became voices for change, their faith changed yet not diminished.
Many memoirs I read turned out to be personal accounts of what I had been reading about in non-fiction analysis. Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, and Malcolm X’s autobiography increased my understanding of race relations in the USA, just after I had read A Colony in a Nation by Chris Hayes. And Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance gave me a more nuanced perspective on the parallels between working class people and people of color. All of the above made it harder to make superficial pronouncements about recent political developments in USA politics, and easier to show empathy to those whose views might once have offended me.
Books do come to hand when the reader is ready. In the ripeness of time, the despised can become the necessary and even the beautiful.