Thursday, September 30, 2004

Why I Read Non-Fiction

The Hatcher does not do fiction as a general rule because of one embarrassing attempt to leverage literary knowledge to impress. For me, it is strictly non-fiction as a result. It's not that I don't like fiction, I just don't get the high brow stuff, as one incident shows clearly. The incident relates to a conversation with an aspiring English Ph.D. at the wedding of a friend. Now, I was already engaged at the time, so there was no ulterior motive to this conversation other than to impress upon the English Ph.D. aspirant my intellectual versatility.

Which I thought was easy to do once she had mentioned that her thesis dealt with Thomas Hardy. Aha! I had read Hardy's Jude the Obscure not long before falling into this conversation, so she was playing right into my hands. I recall from the foreword that the book was very controversial at the time of its publication, and was banned in many locales. But that didn't deter me, free thinker that I am! My mistake was to relay to her that I didn't see what was so controversial about the book - I read it - seemed pretty straightforward to me.

But like all great works of non-fiction, when I said I read it I meant that I had read about two-thirds of it. Not the first the two-thirds, mind you, but the first two of every three pages. You know how it goes - you are reading along, bored to tears, and your mind starts to wander after about 3 or 4 minutes, and by the third page your eyes are reading the words (and my lips are moving as well), but the mind ... Yes the mind is onto bigger things - "should I have Taco Bell for dinner tonight, or would that be wrong given that I had it for lunch?" Before resolving the answer to such important questions, it dawns on you that despite reading every word on that third page, you have no idea what it said. So you go back, but tragically so, because you still have not resolved the Taco Bell dilemma - you re-read, but now your mind is telling you that millions of Mexicans eat Mexican for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, so what the hell? Again, you finish the page without any shred of comprehension - but no page of fiction is worth reading a third time, so on you go to the next page, or to Taco Bell.

Hey, what can skipping one page cost you? With 500 or so in your typical work of high falutin fiction, the probability that you will have missed anything important is pretty low. So you role the dice. But that thinking represents what economists refer to as a fallacy of composition - assuming that what holds true for the part is true for the whole. Skipping any one page is probably harmless, but missing the point of every third page adds up. You want to know what it adds up to? Here was the incredulous response of my literate conversationalist - "What do you mean you don't see what was so controversial about the book, the lead character killed his whole family?"

How do you respond to that? You have two choices - give up any pretense to having an IQ above 90, or stay firm in your opinion that such actions are not controversial and come across as a sociopath. A tough choice, indeed - I chose to drink quickly from my beer, wait for a distraction, and run away. I left her guessing whether I was a moron or a socio-path, although that was probably a mistake, as the two are not mutually exclusive traits.

Looking back, I have to marvel at the dumb luck - not only did the murder of his wife and kids fall on a page where visions of hard-shelled beef tacos were whirring in my head, but every subsequent reference to that event happened to fall three pages later. So go ahead - pick up the book and skip every third page, and I'm sure you'll agree - there is nothing controversial.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would've asked what is so "controversial" about the lead character killing his whole family. What is the controversy? Who is arguing over this? Is there one side arguing that he did and one side that he didn't? Is there one side arguing that killing one's whole family is wrong and one side saying it isn't?

Like most English PhDs, they spend more time looking for alternate meanings in words rather than helping ascribe more precise meaning to words.

Ironic isn't it? Or is that an incorrect use of the word "ironic"? Don't ask an English PhD.

8:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What the PhD undoubtedly failed to mention is that the lead character killed his entire family in wild rage unwittingly brought on by the simultaneous and rapid midnight consumption of beer and bad Mexican food.

I suggest that should you find yourself facing the incredulous stare of an English PhD in the future, you should dazzle her with economic terms of art like "fallacy of composition" or perhaps the more rudimentary "invisible hand" and observe how quickly she sips her beer and bolts.

5:06 AM  

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