Saturday, December 5, 2009


There are any number of acceptable and plausible answers to the query, Why do people read, particularly if we throw in the qualifier Nonfiction, as in why do people read it?  Most logical of the available answers is To acquire information.  What's playing at which of the local theaters, What are the starting times.  That sort of thing.  By posing questions on Google, you might get along with the parameters of the information you seek an interesting Haiku or Haiku-type locution, mysterious, ambiguous, intriguing.  Sometimes even questions addressed to Google Maps provides a poetic trope, heavy with existential meaning:  The best way to get to Houston.  The most direct way to San Felipe.  But it is safe to say we--at least YOU--read nonfiction to get reliable, useful information.  How to make Quiche Lorraine?  Cornmeal before the buttermilk when making corn bread?

Fiction opens additional portals.  We read--at least YOU read--for emotional information, to see how others have coped with conflicts and conundrums, to be able to identify with individuals from other cultures, to see what it is like to be someone we nourish dreams of being.  Your own favorite answer is: To see how others deal with surprise.

To be sure, nonfiction can and does present us with surprise information, with unexpected outcome, with the surprising awareness that there are other ways to do some of the things we do, to discover that the things we've been doing in the presumption of correctness and/or moral authority are in fact wrong and/or immoral, to discover that we are not so original as we might have supposed, to discover that we may have grabbed a sleeping tiger by the tail.

Surprise, you believe, must join grief as the most dramatic, complex, motivating emotions we humans are able to experience.  Under the mantle of grief, characters do strange, explosive things which are not always predictable.  Grief is, after all, a response or set of responses to loss.  Ah, the things we are in danger of losing; the things we lose, the on-going fear of what person, place, or thing will be lost to us next.  The fear of loss will on occasion draw one of us to acquire a substitute of some sort for a noun that has been lost, triggering the potential for surprise in the realization that this substitute person, place, or thing is not a suitable replacement for the person, place, or thing lost, and now we are encumbered with this person, place, or thing.

We sometimes experience surprise when we discover the next thing in a succession of things we will lose, driving us to want to make some kind of transaction with Fate,bargaining.  Take This instead of That.  Of course Fate holds the control wand, causing some of us to turn variously to such nouns as religion, the supernatural, and fantasy.  It often turns the rest of us to writing stories because here we can, by one means or another, undo the depredations of grief and loss; as in dreams, we can for moments on end re-experience the happiness we'd known before a particular noun was taken from us.

Some fiction and, indeed, some philosophical writing attempt to help us cope with the things we have lost, either by helping us come to acceptance of the loss or some vision in which we see the risky business we signed on for when we beat all those other swimmers to the egg.  Some fiction and, indeed some philosophical writing propose such concepts to us as Hereafter or Afterlife, offering them as something we might find comfortable in the multifarious complexities of Life as We know It.  It warmed and amused you when your late mother would on occasion speculate that if there is such a thing as an Afterlife, your late father will have a good deal to answer for, such as why he went first, why he went three years before she did, and what he has been doing in the interim.  You could see them in such circumstances, catching up, and for them you find yourself wishing it could have worked that way.

It is another matter for you, even warmed by the thought of them meeting again that way--it is all a part of a story they left for you.  At one level, the writer is known to be self-serving and to exploit, arranging and rearranging the cosmic furniture to produce a result.  Even though you hold no such beliefs of Afterlife or Hereafter, you are not at all adverse to those two worthies indulging their story, their belief.

Thus do stories transmit across cultures and time the information we seek to make sense of the Cosmos in which we find ourselves at wander.  Your youngest niece has married a native of Japan who, enjoying the reefs and shoals of pronunciation in Japanese and English, has for some time wanted the family job of providing the supplies because, when he makes the offer, it is difficult to know if he is emphasizing supplies or surprise; he has used language to the ambiguous extent where no matter what he provides, it will be a surprise.  A writer does well to note such ambiguity and use it as the tool it wants to be.

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