The idea for my column today came from two things that happened recently. First, I bought a book at a Books-A-Million last Saturday during a lull at one of my signings there (I know, I know, I'm supposed to be selling my own wares at these events, not buying the books of others--what can I say?). Second, I read with great interest Art Taylor's SleuthSayers column a week ago Friday, in which he talked about some of the differences between (and differences in attitude toward) reading fiction and nonfiction.
The book I bought was called In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick, which has been adapted into a new movie of the same name, directed by Ron Howard. I've not yet seen the movie--but I know the book is good because I just finished reading it. And the only thing unusual about the fact that I bought and read it in the first place is that it's a true story.
I do seek out and read nonfiction from time to time, notably Seabiscuit, The Perfect Storm, Into Thin Air, Unbreakable, The Right Stuff, In Cold Blood, etc.--but I confess that 99% of what I read (and write) is fiction. The reason for that is simple: I see and hear about reality all the time, especially in the morning paper or on the Nightly News, and when I read a book for pleasure I don't want reality. I want to be entertained. I don't want to be educated or illuminated--if that happens as a byproduct, fine, but first and foremost I'm looking for suspense and emotion and entertainment.
Here's my point: some nonfiction, especially that which falls into the delightful category of creative nonfiction, IS entertaining. That's certainly the case with Philbrick's book. Just as an author would do in a good novel, Nathaniel Philbrick introduces the characters (with all their flaws), puts them in a dire situation, makes their predicament even worse (and worse, and worse), and finally brings the story to a conclusion that's satisfying to the reader.
The icing on the cake is that the reader learns something about life as well as something about two things unfamiliar to most of us: (1) the legendary whaling capital of long-ago Nantucket, Massachusetts, and (2) the fascinating process by which daring men with tiny boats and large harpoons hunted and killed and butchered and boiled (to extract the oil from) leviathans measuring eighty feet in length and weighing sixty tons.
I won't give away any plot goodies here, but I will say that this is the true story of the officers and crew of the Nantucket whaleship Essex, which in 1819 was rammed and sunk by an enraged sperm whale two thousand miles off the west coast of South America. And, ultimately, an engrossing story of courage and leadership and survival. The Essex tragedy served as a young Herman Melville's inspiration for Moby Dick, which was published 32 years later, and--according to Philbrick--was as familiar a story to nineteenth-century schoolchildren as the sinking of the Titanic was a hundred years later.
Have any of you seen In the Heart of the Sea? Would its classification as nonfiction deter you from reading the book? In other words, does the fact that it was a real occurrence matter ro you? I've already admitted a personal preference for fiction over non-, but I've also said I enjoyed this tale. I'm not sure the reading process would've been any more fun if it had been fiction. Maybe it wouldn't have been as much fun. Maybe it actually helped to know that such amazing things really did happen.
I realize I'm resurrecting a subject that Art has already covered eight days ago, but I must ask: what are your feelings regarding fiction vs. nonfiction, in general? Are you as biased as I am? What are some nonfiction books you've read that you feel are as good or better than well-known novels you've read? Any recommendations?
Bottom line is, if you feel so inclined, check out In the Heart of the Sea. Nathaniel Philbrick did a fine job with that book, and I suspect that good old Opie created a fine movie from it as well. Sheriff Taylor would've been proud.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going back to novels and shorts. Can't stay away from fiction for long.