14 February 2009

Why I Cannot Read Non-Fiction

I am exaggerating a little in the title. I can and do read non-fiction; more now than ever. I regularly read bits and pieces of literary criticism, history, biography, apologetics, and so on, but I rarely read a work of non-fiction straight through for fun. I generally treat it as reference materials. Recently I've been trying to be more intentional about reading non-fiction works cover-to-cover. Too many years of my life have gone by for me to remain ignorant in many categories! But one of the main motivating factors has been reading Louisa's book. And this leads me to the first way that I "can't read non-fiction":

1. My brain has atrophied
So, I'm trying to read Louisa's brillant, challenging book, and I find that too much novel-reading has weakened my brain cells. When I was in graduate school, I was more used to applying mental power to understand, classify, and apply difficult writing. But now I'm used to reading only what high schoolers read, plus pleasure reading! So I need to get my brain back in shape.

But that's not the serious problem. That's my own fault, and [more or less] easily remedied by some good brain-application. The more serious difficulty is:

2. Works of non-fiction convince me of the opposite of what they are attempting to prove.
Yes. You see, I am such an in-grained skeptic that I naturally argue with writers. I search for the holes in the arguments, look for alternative interpretations, and consider what might be written to prove the exact opposite. I recently read Between Heaven and Hell by Peter Kreeft; a delightful little Socratic dialogue with C. S. Lewis trouncing the weak atheistic and humanistic arguments of [caricatures of] Aldous Huxley and J. F. Kennedy. It's a cute book, but it has some problems. First of all, Lewis made the arguments better in the first place. Second, JFK and Huxley are really just straw men, not themselves nor even well-rounded 3-D characters at all. Third, the "inescapable logic" that Lewis used to "prove" incontrovertibly that Jesus is God really didn't feel incontrovertible. I'm not a good enough logician to really say what's wrong with the logic, but here's how it felt to me. It felt as if each syllogism, each step of the argument, was correct, but that the sudden conclusions had somehow skipped a point. To me, the point is the "leap of faith" -- Kierkegaard's subjectivity as truth -- but Kreeft never mentioned that. So his wonderful work of great apologetics left me feeling funny and doubtful inside. I'd rather read a great work of spiritual fantasy and sense God's presence in nature, imagination, and art than read a work that "proves" His existence yet leaves me feeling far away from Him.

And it's not just spiritual "non-fiction" that has this effect. I'm also reading The Language of God by Francis Collins. OK, I guess that's spiritual, but the main points are scientific. It's supposed to be proving that evolution is completely consistent with Biblical Christianity. I approached the book ready and willing to be convinced. But the more I read his impassioned descriptions of how Darwinian evolution is proven fact, and beautiful fact, and Biblical fact, the more I feel the whole thing is complete nonsense!

I wonder why this is? Am I just an inveterate skeptic, or is there actually some truth to the idea that FACT CANNOT SURVIVE WITHOUT THE CONSENT OF THE IMAGINATION? Let me know what you think.


Rob said...

I haven't read that book on evolution/Bible, so can't comemnt directly on it. However, any book which attempts to prove that evolution is 'biblical fact' is on a hiding to nothing.

It seems to me that the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 and scientific texts on evolution are entirely different types of literature. I don't approach a poem, say, expecting the same kind of truth as I would with a science textbook, but I do expect to find 'truth' in a great poem, perhaps a deeper truth than mere facts.

However, the poem's truth doesn't undermine scientific facts. They are simply of an different order of discourse.

I don't read Geneis for science and it wasn't written for that purpose either. But I do read it for deeper underlying truths.

Rosie Perera said...

It sounds to me like you can read non-fiction and you're doing it very well. You can't expect your experience of reading non-fiction to be the same as your experience of reading fiction, because it's different and needs to be approached differently. It's not meant to be for entertainment. It is for information, learning, being challenged. It should be very interactive, intellectually stimulating, and does often involve disagreeing with the author, or at least challenging him or her to do a better job of defending the main arguments.

Mortimer Adler & Charles van Doren's classic book How To Read a Book explains all that. A summary of the book can be found here. An old edition is online here.

Some of these same ideas are covered in Paul N. Edwards's "How To Read a Book, v4.0."

Try reading some books arguing against Darwinian evolution and see if you can find the holes in them. There are usually plenty! (I'm not saying the ones defending it are all completely solid either.)

You are probably in general choosing to read non-fiction books on topics you already know enough about (e.g., C.S. Lewis) that you can critique them. Try biographies of people you don't know much about yet. For example, I read Isaiah Berlin: A Life, by Michael Ignatieff, a couple of years ago. It's one of the best biographies I've ever read, and Berlin was a fascinating character. I hadn't known anything about him. Another good book of non-fiction I read recently was Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin. It recounts what I am convinced is a better approach to reducing the seeds of terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan than what the U.S. government has been trying.

Spiritual memoir is another category of non-fiction that one can read all the way through. You might find yourself making critical judgements of the author's choices in life, but you can't argue with her actual experience. And many of these are really enjoyable to read and might challenge you to think differently about something. A good one I read recently was Take This Bread: The Spiritual Memoir of a Twenty-First Century Christian by Sara Miles. She came to faith through being welcomed at a church that practiced open communion -- it was served to all and sundry, believers and unbelievers alike.

Other good non-fiction I've read in the past year:

A Holy Meal: The Lord's Supper in the Life of the Church, by Gordon Smith
Appointment with God: Some Thoughts on Holy Communion, by J.B. Phillips
(You can tell I was on a communion kick; I was preparing to speak on the topic.)
The Story of Film: A Worldwide History, by Mark Cousins
The Forgetting: Alzheimer's: Portrait of an Epidemic, by David Shenk
Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice, by Howard Zehr
All Things Human: Henry Codman Potter and the Social Gospel in the Episcopal Church, by Michael Bourgeois
...and lots of books on aging, death, and dying, which I won't bother you with.

Willa said...

It was odd that you mentioned the question: whether fact can survive without the consent of imagination? I was just discussing this question with someone a couple of weeks ago. We didn't come to any conclusions: just raising the question gave me enough to think about for a while.

I think I remember that Lewis once said that he never felt so flat and unconvinced spiritually as after he had been trying to argue for the truths of the faith. Maybe his reaction was a little like yours.

Anyway, I agree that much of the point of reading non-fiction is to "discuss" something with the author -- it's not necessary to agree with him on everything, but only to be willing to discuss on fair grounds (a kind of "benefit of the doubt" since he is not able to interact personally to qualify or balance out things when he sees your difficulties with his position).

Steve said...

I think it is a good thing to read non-fiction while asking a lot of questions.

Anonymous said...

i like to share my with you


what if i were to die
who would miss me
who would diss me and not care
who would feel shame for all the things
they did not say to me,all the words
un spoken,or all the things they did to me.
who would pray for me
if i were to die today.

Iambic Admonit said...

Hello, Anonymous -- you must be the student my mother told me about, eh? Welcome! It would have made more sense if you had posted your poem on one of my "Poem of the Month" postings, but I guess I am behind the times with those. So, thank you for posting your lovely little poem; I really enjoyed reading it. Keep reading, writing, and practicing poetry!