categories: Cocktail Hour
One phrase that I’d like to bury for a while is “the literature of fact.” Though I’m a fan of John McPhee, I think those words he created have now done more harm than good. They do a disservice to all the exciting things going on in nonfiction, and they say, “Okay, you fact guys line up on one wall and you James Frey-types line up on the other.”
In the limited sense that the phrase it is too often taken, it just means a newer, shinier type of journalism, the sort of nonfiction you see reviewed in the Times. What am I suggesting in its stead? Not memoir per se. As a teacher, too much of what I see all day is some variant of “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” (or, sometimes, “What I Did on My Cancerous Summer Vacation.”) No, what I’d like to see and read is nonfiction that doesn’t tell a life so much as it uses life experiences, that is, nonfiction that picks up a part of a life and examines it, smells it, maybe chews on it a little. That to me is what’s missing. Fact is important; fact is vital. But it is just the foundation, the place to build up from.“The mind is a burrowing organ,” wrote Thoreau. And that’s just it—just what I’m looking for. Burrowing literature. I want facts, sure, but I also want something that tunnels below the facts. I want to watch a mind in action, a person using his or her mind to work down through those facts, hording the ones they need and tossing aside the ones they don’t, and, most of all, putting those facts to use. That is what excites me. That is what gets me turning pages.
How can I get so excited about reading writers who at times seem preoccupied only with working out the algebra of their own lives? The standard explanation seems to be that by plumbing their own depths, by so well exploring themselves, they let us look into our own selves, and there is something to this. But there’s more. What we discover when we read, and really interact with, these writers, even the dead ones, is that they are living—yes, still living—human beings who are burrowing deeply into their own lives and the world around them. They are trying to make sense of both the world and themselves, and they are trying hard. (Why wouldn’t they try hard? This is their one and only life!) Why am I so concerned with this burrowing literature? Maybe in part because it’s so exciting to me. This is the excitement of quest, though this quest is not after a dragon or a pot of gold, but for the answer to a question. That question is a simple one: how to be on earth during our short time here? What should we spend our time doing? Who should we become? And, that question at the heart of the mystery again: How to be?
These are the questions that keep me on the edge of my seat, curious, rapt, engaged, and if we read these writers for a while we find that these concerns are contagious. By watching their burrowing minds in action, we begin to see that we can burrow, too.
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This is not to say I’m against research. For a book about ospreys I read all I could about the birds, did dozens of interviews, and spent the better part of a year sitting out on marshes studying the birds with binoculars, telescope and my bare eye. But I wasn’t there to write a field guide. I was out there to learn about the birds but, obviously, to also find out a thing or two about myself.
I know I am consciously misconstruing McPhee here. But toward a purpose and toward an end. The nonfiction that is featured in today’s book reviews, the nonfiction that gets by those goalies we call marketers and publicists and editors, is often the much bolstered equivalent of a book report. Book reports are nice and much needed. But to my eye, ear and mind, there is something deeper, something better. Something that feeds a part of us that we don’t even know needs to be fed until we encounter the right book. It is the literature of Montaigne, of Thoreau. It is burrowing literature and in witnessing the burrowing of others we may even begin to dig a little ourselves. Which is an exciting, and hopeful, thing.
P.S. If you are interested in this stuff, I recently finished a longer essay on the topic. I sent it to a couple of magazines but learned, to my surprise, that I was a little behind the curve in my thinking, and that someone named David Shields had cornered the market on these type of thoughts. I’ve since started to read Shields’ book, Reality Hunger, which, ironically points out just how un-original we all really are and how heavily we lean on others (something I agree with [see Talking to Ghosts] and find freeing.) Since I haven’t finished the book, I don’t yet know if Shields is also prescribing “Burrowing Literature,” but when I do finish I’ll write up my reactions in Reading Under the Influence.