Lately I’ve been reading a fair amount of nonfiction. I’d say that I’ve always been a big nonfiction reader but that’s not true. Like a lot of kids, I didn’t have much interest in reading anything factual (“boring”) outside of school. Fiction, sure, nonfiction, never. But at least since my mid-twenties I’ve always alternated between fiction and nonfiction, and I’ve usually had a mix of the two next to my bed at any given time. I wasn’t faithful to any special category, either. Lots of science (both the “hard” and “soft” varieties), lots of history, a fair amount of philosophy, literary and film criticism, a few biographies. Usually if I found an author I loved, I followed them down other paths, too. So for example I think I read about 90% of everything Stephen Jay Gould wrote, and missed him so much once he died that I bought a copy of his 1400-page scholarly work The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. (I didn’t read it, but I still have time. I think.)
I didn’t think it made me any smarter or more well-rounded to read nonfiction. It was just a way to push my brain in other directions — the same reason why I’m always trying to study languages, even if I keep proving to myself that I’ll never
get past the intermediate stage of French. It’s trite to say there’s something exhilarating about learning, but what strikes me sometimes is how we can can get used to not learning things. Or at least not learning things that are totally new and outside the pretty narrow window of interest in which we usually operate.
Last fall I started taking graduate classes in philosophy. I don’t know yet where I’ll go with it, but so far it’s been good. It’s been challenging, which is part of what I like about it. But as a result, most of my reading for the past six months or so has been limited to philosophy. The old guys like Plato and Aristotle, but also (thankfully) plenty of wonderful contemporary writers. I love thoughtful and contemplative writing and so it’s been rewarding (and intimidating, coming as I am from a non-philosophy undergrad background). It’s not always the most lyrical or gripping stuff, but that’s a post for another day.
All this is to say that I’ve missed reading my other nonfiction books, the ones that just seem to be for fun, and that push my mind in new directions. I noticed it today when I was doing a little research for a possible novel. The book has to do with memory, and so today I pulled down a copy of Francis Yates’s The Art of Memory — I went through a period about 10 years when I tore through most of Yates’s books. Then I went online to look for something related, and in a roundabout way came across an article in a journal of medieval scholarship by a writer named Mary Carruthers, titled “Inventional Mnemonics and the Ornaments of Style: The Case of Etymology.” Which sounds incredibly dry, I know! But she’s writing about how medieval writers would basically make up name etymologies, much to the unhappiness of later scholars (and etymologists in particular). Then she writes, discussing Chaucer’s use of a medieval scholar’s “false” etymology of the saint’s name “Cecilia”:
But suppose for a moment that there might have existed cultures for whom the question of “verifiable” historical origin was less important than other matters—such as what can I make from the name and life of this saint? Or (a variation of the same) how can I internalize, “make my own,” the virtues and qualities exemplified in this saint’s life? That is also a form of “remembering” Cecilia, though it isn’t what most moderns think of when they consider “memory.”Mary Carruthers, Source
Which I just love. I love her idea here — that people might have used something like etymology for different reasons, to create meaning and association — and I loved reading about it, because it’s just a wildly unexpected thing to stumble across, something that’s both interesting and feels (however legitimately) right and revelatory.
That’s all, really. Just a shout-out to reading nonfiction, and finding little diamonds everywhere.