I have always loved reading but stumbled onto fiction later in life than most. Near the end of grade nine I picked up a copy of Animal Farm. I enjoyed it but found it frustrating that I knew exactly what was going to happen — people tell me that that is the point of the book yet I still didn’t enjoy it as much as the rest of Orwell’s books.
After that I set out to read all of Orwell’s books. In hindsight Orwell didn’t really write a great deal of fiction. 1984 stands out as a gem as does the little known Coming up for air in his fiction writing. I loved these books for the vivid tone he used and how Orwell’s language pulled the reader into the scene. You felt like you were there.
Not all of his writing is magical Burmese Days was less than enjoyable and I didn’t finish it, not even close. Keep the Aspidistra becomes daunting and self-involved but this writing is not where his charm lies.
Orwell was magical because he told stories about himself and his life. Down and out in Paris and London and Homage to Catalonia leave you hanging on his every word, staying up until 4 a.m. even though you need to get up early magic. He was telling us his life in a compelling narrative. I was in love.
Next I found his essays and my admiration grew. He could take the simplest thing, like a toad, and write a bitter sweet essay about nature, spring and the passing of time.
I had spent the years before I found Orwell reading books about politics — with a heavy portion on American politics, which became depressing fast as a junior high student in the Bush era. I sat and read nonfiction that would have been daunting to some adults yet my mother worried about me. It was not that I wasn’t reading but that in her mind I was reading the wrong things. I hadn’t read any fiction that hadn’t been assigned to me by a teacher aside from Harry Potter and a series of unfortunate events.
Judging by the contents of this blog she had nothing to worry about — other than the fact that her daughter would grow up wanting to be a writer, journalist or political scientist. There is no right genre or type of writing. There is writing that is enjoyed and writing that is daunting. I read the first kind.
I could care less for lists of books that I should read before I die or the BBC’s list of the top 100 books. Some of these books like the Lord of the Rings are nothing but daunting, long, are we there yet types of unpleasantness.
Over time I have built up my own list of must reads and authors I admire. Among them is Karl Taro Greenfeld who exists in a world outside AP acceptable lists. These are the books you read because you want to, not because you are supposed to.
My sister picked up Speed Tribes: Days and Nights with Japan’s Next Generation at the CBC Canada reads book sale and after a few years dormant on my bookshelf I picked it up and fell in love with it. As a read I wasn’t really sure of what to call what I was reading. I didn’t know how true it was. Did these people really exist? Where these quotes from people? From his imagination? From both? I called it journalistic fiction. I knew he had a background as a journalist.
I special ordered Standard Deviations: Growing up and coming down in the new Asia at inflated cost from Chapters. Standard Deviations was more of a memoir — not in the same way that Boy Alone: A Brother’s Memoir is a memoir — than Speed Tribes and reminded me of Orwell’s accounts of his adventures. I knew they were alike but I didn’t know what to call them.
Today I began reading The Best Creative Nonfiction Vol.1 edited by Lee Gutkind. The introduction by Gutkind describes the evolution of creative nonfiction and the writers behind the trend. Orwell and Greenfeld both fit. It was the word I had been looking for all this time. An explanation of what they were doing, what I feel in love with when I discovered writing in the first place. It is the best of nonfiction writing, which can often fall into the trap of being formulaic and dry. This is the type of writing that makes up the Best American collections I have spent so much time reading of late.
It is the type of writing that may not be studied in English courses but makes anyone who reads a memoir or an outstanding feature in a newspaper or magazine smile, think and enjoy reading. It is a perfect combination and no one — not even your mother — should let you think otherwise.