When I was a youngster of 5, 6, 7 years my Mom would often take me to the public library where I would proceed to check out a dozen books – or as many as my toothpick-like noodle arms could carry – with titles like Danny and the Dinosaur and Sammy The Seal.
I revelled in living in the fantasy worlds of the written word. I’ve told this story before, but when I was very young I used to think China was on a different planet. I don’t know if I truly believed that or simply made myself believe it, but I dreamt of suiting up in astro-gear and shuttling to the far reaches of that land of a billion people and, of course, the The Five Chinese Brothers. One of my favorites, this was a book I actually owned instead of simply borrowed for 14 days from that wonderfully free governmental institution housing the Dewey Decimal System.
Whenever it was time for a Scholastic book club order at my school it was all I could do to wait for the material to arrive.
As I grew older, however, something happened and I’ll never be able to pinpoint the reason why.
I lost my love for fiction. I developed what one might call fiction friction.
I still read a lot, but it was – besides those times when an English teacher would assign a book nobody was particularly excited to engage in – mostly non-fiction. How-tos, autobiographies, business, self-help, personal development, you get the idea.
Over the years I still tested the fiction waters. I wanted to see what others saw. “What joy do you get from reading about fantasy worlds?! I just don’t understand. Help. Help me understand.”
All those classics I was supposed to love and appreciate resulted in nothing but boredom or even, it pains me to say, hatred. Hatred towards people for believing what I thought was old school drivel was any good. Hatred towards authors for writing these – things – teachers forced us to read. Hatred towards teachers for being cowards and assigning the same literature every other teacher assigned.
Sometimes – rarely – some piece of fiction stuck. Most of it contemporary. A Clockwork Orange. Wow! The Alchemist. Good. American Psycho. Yes. But those books I was supposed to fall in love with? The On The Roads and The Great Gatsbys? I couldn’t even finish them. By this time I had lumped all fiction together. “I don’t really read fiction” was my mantra and I mostly stuck to it.
I still yearned for that understanding of fantasy worlds. What do the Twi-hards see that I don’t? Harry Potter? Why not just watch the 15 hours of movies and do something productive with the 100 hours saved reading? What did young Karol feel that older Karol no longer felt? I needed to know.
As a result I began a quest to find and read more fiction. No more giving up on a book too soon. Learn to appreciate the written word, the written worlds. Creativity.
In 2012 the fiction floodgates opened once again.
I’ve read more fiction this year than probably my previous 10 years of life combined, but there’s an important distinction to be made. I still can’t get lost in most fantasy worlds. The fiction books I’ve been growing to love read like real life. To the point that I’ve found myself googling “facts” and people to see if they were real.
An unexpected result of falling in love with fiction again is I’ve been learning to stop myself when having any kind of gut reaction to something. “Stop and think, Karol.” The general premise of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink was that – and forgive me for making it so basic – our initial reactions, what Gladwell calls “thin-slicing,” are often close to spot on. Supposedly if you trust those feelings it will serve you well. I don’t believe that’s true.
Sometimes what seems like a gut reaction is less instinct and more learned. “Ehh, I don’t read fiction,” when somebody recommends a novel, for example. This is definitely true the older we get and the more set in our ways we become. Old dogs new tricks and all that.
Just because you believed something in the past doesn’t mean you have to keep believing in it. It’s OK to be wrong and it’s perfectly acceptable to change your mind.
More than anything remember that everything learned can be unlearned.
This essay wasn’t about books. It’s about a different kind of fiction. Read my comments in the comments.