Fiction Friction

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.

16 Responses to Fiction Friction

  1. I repeat your last sentence before I respond. This essay is not about books. When you put titles in front of avid readers they salivate like rabid dogs. I am fighting off the urge to run to Half Price Books and buy Post Office or recommend a million and one titles. My return to fiction stemmed largely from a book club of two my husband and I created to read and more deeply connect with the book and each other. We, too, love the real and reading works of Beckett and Hemingway has enhanced our love. Now, if I can just get him to read Sophie’s Choice. Sorry to respond about books. I have unlearned many things in my years leading up to and heading into my 40s. That would be a book in itself. Thank you, Karol. Happy New Year!

  2. I don’t know why your refound love for fiction makes me smile, but it does. Perhaps because I love the escape of a good novel.

    As I get older, I find that the biases I have against certain things go so far back, I can’t even remember why I felt that way. I have tried to open myself to the possibilities of changing my mind or allowing for a new opinion/insight on those biases. It is amazing what creatures of habit we truly are.

    • Thanks Jonathan. I wonder how common it is to learn to have an open mind in later years (later meaning post-20s). From my point of view it seems uncommon except amongst certain groups of people. Techies, for example.

      • I can only speak for my own experiences, but I have found that the older I am the more open I am to suggestions that I may be wrong.

        I’m in my 40’s now, and having had a surprise (miracle!) late in life baby, I basically just opened myself up to others and said ‘tell me what you know’.

        Just because I believe something, doesn’t necessarily make it true – and I do prefer the truth (often above all else).

        • Agree Jenn N. That has been my experience as well – the older I have gotten, the easier it is for me to be open. I am more interested in bearing witness than being right. Ego is way smaller.

          While this is not about fiction, oddly I have in my hand to give as a gift the single best piece of fiction I read in 2012. “The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey. Mesmerizing. A rare book where I reread sentences and paragraphs for the pure enjoyment of how it was crafted together.

  3. Hello Karol: Loved this!!! It’s fascinating to me how things we learned as children (and then became our belief systems) continue to haunt us as adults as ascribe to them with no thought to where they originated or even if we believe them. As if we are robots that have been programmed to only be one way and there is no thinking for ourselves, no choice. Why don’t we question our programming more???

    All the best to you!

    • Thank you Colleen for understanding better that this essay was not about books. It was about fiction though. Of another sort.

    • Strangely enough, I’m reading a book right now about how our brains are, essentially, programmed from a very young age. Bright From the Start, by Jill Stramm. Fascinating science.

      • Hi Jenn: While I do agree that there are certain things we are programmed with as children – learning to walk, talk, feed ourselves, etc. However, I believe that what Karol was pointing out (and I wholeheartedly agree) is that many things that we are taught – the things we heard our parents or other adults say, the things that we heard so often that we could hear those voices in our heads (and still do) that became our “belief systems” simply because we were inundated with it. Those things we take for granted as being a part of who we are without ever really questioning – do I believe that/do I want to ???

        • That’s a good interpretation Colleen and it’s close to what I was going for. This essay was about religion and how unrealistic it is (aka fantasy/fiction). Though I discombobulated the message towards the end.

        • I should clarify – by ‘programmed’ I mean it’s proven now that our environment and what happens to us (what our parents say, etc) actually influences whether or not genes get turned on. Thus, behaviours that are set early on are both nature AND nurture.

  4. Hi Karol,
    thank you for the always thought-provoking essays!

    I find it interesting that, to you, fiction would be about losing yourself in a fantasy world, and that you would associate losing your interest in fiction with losing the desire to be lost in a fantasy world.

    To me, “good” fiction is so much about the real world that sometimes I’m afraid of reading fiction – it’s too realistic! I find that the fiction that I like teaches me a lot about who I truly am and what it means to be human, in a way that no personal development book ever could.

    If I want escapism, I read self-help…

    I find that an unhelpful/unproductive way of reading self-help (and the way I read it when I “just want to relax”) is like a fantasy “choose your own adventure” book, in which you become the super-sexy, super-fit, super-rich, super-attractive hero, just by reading about how to become a better version of you. And then you do nothing.

    Whereas the mental work involved in making sense of fiction often wrings longer-lasting change in my life (as in, deciding on a new course of action and actually implementing it, as opposed to dreaming of “One day, I’ll follow that programme”).

    I find that fiction sharpens my mind more, takes more of a mental effort than a lot of non-fiction, perhaps because I like to pay attention to the craft of literary writing and structure. Structure in a non-fiction book is logical (procedural: after A, do B; or rhetoric: now that I’ve convinced you that A, you will be more receptive to B; or chronological), whereas structure in a non-fiction book has to have its own “logic” that must make sense on an “aesthetic” level. And this is true even of non literary fiction – I’m taking “aesthetic” in a very broad sense here, not as a shorthand for “what’s accepted as literature in the academic canon”.

    That’s why I’d take the 100 hours of reading Harry Potter over watching the movies anytime!

  5. Actually, I have starred this essay. And please forgive me any misspellings, but I’m a little bit drunk.

    The reason I’ve starred it is, I can identify with it too well. Fiction used to be where I lived, now it’s where I sometimes pop in.

    What I differ from you is, I still believe fiction is better than non-fiction. You see, I believe that there are too many books. And far too many non-fiction books. It’s too hard not to get lost among them. And now I understand one of my professors who said, that when he reads books he reads only the introduction and in a few cases also the ending, and if in those two there is nothing interesting, then he considers a book read and he won’t go back.

    Another difference between us is I want to write non-fiction. I don’t want to write yet another handbook. So I want to write in my native language (far more skilled I am in it), than English. I know that a dream differs from moneymaking, so it’s nothing bounding me, but I do think that way.

    All in all, I won’t recommend you any books, I know you’ll come by worthwile literature (Wordsworth, even), so just keep reading, man! :)

  6. As a child I hated reading books for school but I was fascinated by any encyclopedia (my obsession with research papers started in 3rd grade). And as other kids were playing outside I would travel the world and learned about it’s cultures through the words and definitions written in those thick books. Some 40 years later, I managed to read my first 3 fiction books entirely, it was a love story. I cried when it was over because I didn’t know what to do, where to find more; but I learned that life wasn’t as “black & white” as I thought.