the library of the mind

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.

7 thoughts on “the library of the mind”

  1. I too have been struck by the interest which people (read: readers) have taken to discussing this. The classification issues I look at as a problem with no solution–even in bookstores, where nonfiction is arranged a bit differently and more in line with “literary nonfiction” principles, often leave me confused: where is “Into Thin Air”? Outdoors? Nature? Literary Nonfiction? Adventure? Luckily, that’s hopefully why we will always have bookstore staff and library staff among us, to help us find those specific things we really need, and to leave us alone when we need to wander.

    What I think is really needed is unity between the “reading of any kind” camps, because I worry that fewer people are reading for any reason (to learn, for escapism, for whatever) simply because there are now so many other options: Wii. Swim lessons. Team sports. Etc. and ad infinitum, whatever parents are all driving their kids to these days. Brandon over at Bookstorm said it best recently: just READ. I like your quote too: “a man ought to read.” (That’s out of context but I think it’s a fair point nonetheless.)

  2. Ah, serendipity–after a character by Samuel Johnson, of course.
    I offer what I learned from reading fiction: the Elgin Marbles arrival in London. I got a “wow” in the margin of a 19th history test on that, and I learned it from Georgette Heyer.

  3. I learned those very same things from those very same novels! I’m convinced that if the apocalypse comes, the skills and lifestyle I read through Laura Ingalls Wilder are going to save my sorry industrialized behind.

    In the same vein, you’d be stunned by how much actual useful historical fact I’ve learned from reading bodice-ripping romance novels, perhaps the most maligned of all genre fiction. So whenever I see someone else reading something that makes me wrinkle my nose and think “ick”, I remember that we just. don’t. know. what someone else is taking away from those words, that story, and that book.

  4. I just read a great fiction novel “Wearing the Spider” by Susan Schaab. This novel prompted me to believe that yes, it is possible to learn from fiction novels as much as non-fiction novels. Susan Schaab who is experienced in both the corporate legal and technological world, writes a factual representation of each in her fiction novel. These factual representations taught me a lot about the two subjects. As well, the novel taught me about the importance of multi-genre writing. Schaab produces a novel that can be classified as suspense/thriller/crime fiction, romance and mystery. This style of writing allows an author to target a larger audience by appealing to their literary preferences.

  5. Hello. This is a bit off topic but I am contacting you via Wikipedia, at least that’s how I found you, I am looking for some help finding a map for an article and thought you might be able to help. I have left a message on your Wikipedia user page if you would be interested in helping out. My user name is the one I used here and I can be contacted on Wikipedia or via email by using the email this user feature on my user page. : )

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