Sunday, July 12, 2015

A fond goodbye to most of fiction

I've recently noticed a strange and surprising shift in myself: I appear to be losing much of my interest in fiction.

This is an odd and somewhat disquieting phenomenon for me to notice in myself, since I have been a committed fan of the stuff, and especially science fiction and fantasy, for such a long, long period of my life.  Like many a nerdy child before me, I got into Tolkien and Asimov at an early age, and most of my fiction reading growing up was science fiction.  Then I went away to college and discovered the MIT Science Fiction Society, and my cementation in the genre was complete.  For more than fifteen years, my need to buy fiction was almost entirely abrogated, and I gave back as a volunteer librarian, holding hours, processing part of the bookflow, and eventually writing reviews as well.
Processing books at MITSFS: here we were comparing donated books to current copies in order to decide which was in better condition and should be kept.
The first big shift in my fiction consumption was shifting from a walking/public-transit commute to bicycling or driving.  When I walked, I would read as I walked, and I had gotten quite good at it in several years of commuting while reading.  When I added a subway ride to my commute it stayed the same.  Towards the end of grad school, I started bicycling, however, and that meant that I could no longer even vaguely sanely desire to read while commuting.  When I moved from MIT to BBN, public transit become a much worse option for commuting, and it shifted to bicycling and car, and my commuting reading shifted entirely to podcasts and audiobooks.  There went at least six hours a week of reading, right there.

The next big shift in my fiction consumption was having a child.  When Harriet was born, my already scarce time dwindled even further, and I started needing to multi-task at home as well.  No longer were there good long times to read just curled up on a couch or in bed. Instead, I was generally doing something else, whether it be laundry or cooking or errands or something else, and more reading time converted from visual to auditory.

In the most recent shift, however, I've simply stopped consuming fiction at all for the most part.  Of the last 10 audiobooks that I have purchased, five have been non-fiction, while the others have been science fiction / fantasy.  That might not seem like a lot, but five years ago there might have been a single non-fiction in the lot.  Even more tellingly, of those ten books, I have finished all of the non-fiction and even listened to three of them twice.  Of the fiction, however, I have only even bothered to finish listening to two.  For me, this shift is frankly shocking.

I think that this most recent shift has something to do with the accompanying transitions in how I process fiction when it's auditory and not visual.  When reading a physical book, I read quickly, and move quite quickly through a story, more quickly when I'm not enjoying parts of it.  With an auditory book, on the other hand, the physical fact of the narration speed being so much slower than my usual reading speed means that I am given time to think about and process every sentence as it comes to me.  In turn, this leads to me thinking more deeply about the story I am listening to.  This ends up meaning several things: first, I need a much better quality of author to even keep me interested, since I am forced to consider quality of the prose more closely.  Second, it means that I am thinking in general more about the narrative and story structure, which means that I am generally learning more about not just this particular book that I am reading, but about storytelling as a craft and art.  That, in turn, has ended up bleeding over into other sorts of genres as well, and I am now having a much harder time enjoying anything in fiction (or fictionalized) in television and movies also.  I end up spending more time critiquing the story and looking at its structure than I do enjoying it (again, unless it is very well done indeed), and so a man who once would spend a whole day on the couch watching Cartoon Network is generally now bored by the second episode of something new, when I can see the signposts marking out the path for all the next ten episodes.

I think that I am finding non-fiction more interesting for exactly the same reasons that I am finding fiction less interesting.  Instead of giving me places to ponder the gaps in the world-building of the author and the hollowness behind the scenes, a good non-fiction leaves me wondering about the interconnections and larger implications of the things I'm thinking about.  For example, one of the non-fiction books that I have recently "read" multiple times is a lecture series called "The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes." This piece of history, despite its often degrading into a list of names of peoples who had fights at places, has really filled in a gap in the way that I have been educated about the world.  In my Euro-centric education, the world was anchored in the Mediterranean, with the rise of Islam off on one side and India and China as far away islands to talk about in very separate ways (mostly having to do with when Europeans turned up bent on conquest there).  In fact, however, the great land mass of Asia has always tied these lands together, as well as the worlds in the middle, such as Transoxiana, that were never even mentioned in my education.  This lecture series has shifted the way that I can understand our history of Eurasian civilization, and of many of the ways that I can understand the drivers backing current events, even as I have critiqued the scholarship and prejudices of the author in my head while listening.

In fiction, also, the things I still enjoy are works by authors such as C.J. Cherryh, who many find challenging because of the way that she submerges you so tightly in her characters' viewpoints and refuses to give much introduction to the worlds or technologies that they deal with.  A story by her is thus so densely packed with things to think about that I can read or listen to it many times and still be thinking about the implications and dynamics of the worlds that she has introduced, as well as just the general structure of the story.  A few words here and there can give a glimpse of an iceberg of relationships within a whole society, just as in our own world a single painful news story may become a touchstone for a much, much broader movement.  It's just that authors such as her are rare, and I treasure them on those occasions when I find them.

I suppose that in a way I might consider all of this just natural progress of maturity, but I don't know.  We don't necessarily get bored of all the things we love, not when those things can symbolize comfort and familiarity and home.  But when it comes to fiction, I think I'm moving on to wanting much more depth than once had been able to make me very satisfied.
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