This week, David L. Ulin is blogging at Powell’s about The Lost Art of Reading:
Here’s a question I think about a lot: What are our expectations of nonfiction? I’m not referring to the morass stirred up by the term “creative nonfiction” because it goes without saying that all nonfiction is creative, as is all writing, all attempts to frame the chaos of existence and give it a shape. But more directly, do we come to nonfiction looking for a narrative, and if so what does that mean? I’ve spent much of yesterday talking (or virtually talking) to students about these issues, about the need for writers to shape material, even (or especially) if that material is true.
This was one of the challenges I faced in The Lost Art of Reading, how to give an idea that was, in essence, abstract (why is reading important? what does it offer us?) a concrete form. For me, the solution was to frame it with a story, the story of my attempt to read The Great Gatsby with my teenage son Noah, a story that, for me anyway, catalyzed the larger issues I wanted to address. It made sense because one of the fundamental arguments in the book is that we need story, that we are hard-wired for it as a species, that, as Joan Didion wrote more than 30 years ago, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Yet Didion, it must be said, also recognized the limitations of that argument, the way the same stories that shore us up us also let us down. She follows her famous line with one far less remembered: “Or at least we do for a while.”