The one area in which I find bookstore classification preferable to library classification is literary nonfiction. A good book store will have a section reserved for essays, and sometimes longer nonfiction narratives. At such a store, you can get one-stop shopping for the works of Annie Dillard, John McPhee, Gretel Ehrlich, et al. In both Dewey and LC, the work of these authors will be split up and shelved by topic. You may read McPhee because you are interested in geology or bark canoes or oranges or cod fishing, but it is more likely that you read McPhee because you love his writing, because you find that, like the best teachers and conversationalists, he can make any topic interesting. You learn from reading him, but you don’t set out to learn.
Several discussions dealing with fiction, nonfiction, reading, and learning have been wending their way around the biblioblogosphere of late, and they’ve gotten me thinking. Nonanon has written recently that she loves nonfiction because it pulls her into the world and teaches her things, whereas fiction tends to pull her away from the world. There’s a lively discussion going on in the comments about what you can learn from each. The NEA, in its Reading At Risk report, has been telling us for some years that there is a crisis in American reading because fewer people are reading–although it should be noted that to the NEA, reading means reading literary fiction. Thrillers and suspense novels don’t count, but apparently reading Refuge or An American Childhood doesn’t count either, which is rather a slap in the face to those of us who spent time and money studying nonfiction writer. And then, as Karen notes, there are people who believe that we shouldn’t be reading fiction because we can’t learn any information from it.
This last statement is so ludicrous that I was considering a blog post consisting just of information I learned from reading fiction: you can test for oxygen by lowering a candle into a well hole — if the flame goes out, you shouldn’t go down, because you won’t be able to breathe (the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder). You ride a horse by gripping with your legs, not by hanging on with your hands (The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis). Medieval Poles feared invasions by the Tartars (The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly) — I even once got to use this information when taking a geography test. The layout of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg). I could go on–as I imagine could most of you–what information have you learned from reading fiction?
I have been using as my e-mail signature of late one of my favorite bits from Samuel Johnson (or to be more precise from Boswell’s Life of Johnson):
Idleness is a disease which must be combated; but I would not advise a rigid adherence to a particular plan of study. I myself have never persisted in any plan for two days together. A man ought to read just as his inclination leads him: for what he reads as a task will do him little good.
Almost everything I believe about reading is summed up in that passage, and it explains why I became a librarian and not a teacher. It also explains my rather peculiar study habits. It is not, of course, a good way to organize a public library (although it serves to some extent as the basis for the Prelinger Library, and it fits well with the everything is miscellaneous nature of the digital world), but it is the way the library of the mind works. Those who wish to proscribe what we should read and why, and what we should take from our reading, would be better advised to stop talking and start wandering in the stacks, trusting in serendipity, that greatest of all library attributes, to lead them in the right direction.