I was having this discussion this morning with my sweetheart, trying to define what it is I find in fiction. I decided it’s nourishment. Actually, we were talking about libraries, and how university libraries have different cataloguing systems from public libraries, and he made the comment that there’s probably a lot less fiction in a university library. I think that’s probably true, but only because there is more of the (ineptly-described) non-fiction in a university. The fiction that makes it onto the shelf at the library is deemed better (for us).

And this made me think about how I choose what I read. It occurred to me that it’s very similar to how I attend to my diet. I always mean to eat well, but cookies keep creeping in. Cookies have their place I suppose, but usually, I don’t feel better after I’ve eaten them. (I know, I could make my own very healthy — oxymoron — cookies, but I don’t very often, because there’s no one else here to eat them, and quantity negates value, sometimes.)

Anyway, I realized that some of the things I read will have the same effect on me as cookies. They feel good while they’re going down, but afterwards my gut feels kind of unhappy. “I shouldn’t have eaten/read that,” I might think. So that’s what I think the university tries to do, stock it’s shelves with food and not cookies. The public libraries are more democratic. (Which is why, to keep a democracy healthy, one needs informed citizens.)

One of the books I finished reading this week, Wildlife, by Richard Ford, falls into the category of nourishing. It’s not a cookie-book. I carry it’s tone with me, and think about the characters. I think about how life can push people around, how things can happen that you might not be happy about, because so many things we do come out of unconscious choices we make. We do stuff, and then we feel kind of queasy, like “I shouldn’t have done that,” but we have. I read a book of his short stories some time ago, and remember a similar tone, of people, well, basically reacting to what life throws at them, and not acting out of any sense of conscious choice.

recently read

The reason I picked up Wildlife, besides that it seems to have crept into my house and taken space on my bookshelf (joking, it got there by conscious choice), is that Ford is making the rounds to promote his new book Canada, and I thought I’d go see him talk about it next week, when he makes his way to Vancouver for a Writers’ Festival outside-the-festival event. I sometimes like to go listen to writers talk without having read what they’ve written, because I’m interested in how they do what they do, while in a contrary way not concerned whether the actual writing feeds me. And sometimes I don’t want to go listen to them, because I have read them, and had the cookie response. In Ford’s case, I’m impressed by the writing and will take the chance to go see the person. There is a risk here, because sometimes I’ll see a writer and be put off by the person. It’s an odd thing, but the writing is somehow separate from the person. (This is what makes on-line romance risky.)

I don’t get the impression that Richard Ford is particularly well-known in this country, though the title for this novel has gotten him some space in the paper (in the very little that yet exists for book reviews). Up here, in Canada, we like to think we’re well-nourished in a global sense, aware of the rest of the world, and what it’s up to. But we’re, well maybe not quite as insular as the next guy (the US), but we’re working on it. It’s an interesting other problem, how to nourish our own sense of ourselves, when most of the population of our country is strung out in a ribbon along the Canada/US border. When I was first aware of these sorts of things, the idea of Canadian Literature was kind of a joke, as this country had quite an inferiority complex. Still pretty much colonized by Britain, but also swamped with American culture (ie, Hollywood). Now we try to assert ourselves, but sometimes that means we cut off some very nourishing stuff that might drift across the border. It’s a very tricky problem. I might be able to drum up more author’s names from three thousand kilometres to the east, than the ones that lie a hundred or two miles to the south.

a bookmark from one of Vancouver’s many lost independent bookstores, Women in Print

Anyway, where I’m getting is into some kind of consciousness of my choices in life. Finally. I wish to become conscious of what I’m doing, and to keep conscious, and make these choices consciously. Even though it sounds trivial, even when faced with a plate of cookies, I can choose to leave room for some blueberries instead. That sort of thing. When the road forks, know what’s down both paths, and choose the one that will keep me growing (whether well-traveled or not, doesn’t matter).

I also finished reading Christopher Hitchens’ book God is Not Great, (most definitely a not-fiction) which is also a nourishing book, loaded with intelligence and drawing on immense scholarship too. I’m sorry he went and died (and only three years older than me, yikes!) because I’d like to thank him for writing it. (Here he is, talking about the illness.) Oh well. I think he made some unconscious choices along the path of his life (I’m thinking cigarettes and alcohol were his cookies) that maybe took him out of life earlier than might-have-been. No way to re-run things to test that theory though.

But it’s a cautionary tale, that the cookies aren’t always benign. Nourishment requires conscious thought, I think that’s the message. Life requires conscious thought. Otherwise it just happens. I do believe that when it’s over, it’s over, but I want to be here while I’m still here, I think that’s it, put quite simply.

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1 Response to nourishment

  1. theswimwriter says:

    Hi Shirley! A bit late communicating, but this is Bill from last year’s Langara novel-writing class. Briefly, I love your message. I know people who think fiction is actually trivial, compared with ‘factual reading’ – whereas we know that fiction is capable of demonstrating more truth about the human condition than you can find in any other kind of book. And heck – I enjoy those cookies too. (I’ve just opened one of these blogs too, but it’s going to take me a while to figure the darn thing out.)

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