I haven’t been a reader for long. My career of reading has perhaps only begun around two or three years ago. Throughout those years I have accumulated a pile of a little over a hundred read books—something I’m quite proud of, but certainly nothing worthy of praise. However, unlike most of my peers, my shelves are not lined with fantasy, mystery, or romance novels. Instead, they are filled with the various of topics of non-fiction. Ranging from economics, to politics, and my current favorite, evolutionary psychology. I cannot say that I fully comprehend all the subjects that I have perused, but each and everyone of them have taught me one very important lesson: the value that lies in tying ourselves with the mundane and grim realities of the world we live in.
Though fiction is by no means a bad thing. Several of my favorite authors, the likes of Patrick Rothfuss, Orson Scott Card, and Kurt Vonnegut are responsible for drawing me ever deeper into the literary world. But if there is one thing that fiction simply cannot compete with against its counterpart, is its role in reality.
My previous statement may need some clarification. It is true that fiction can teach us countless wisdoms, some that are relevant only at the time of their writing, and the “classics” whose teachings persist in relevance to this day. Yet with all these considerable achievements, the reality is that nearly all of the characters, events, and dramas in their pages are simply not real; there is nothing we can do to affect the outcome of the tale. We are turned into passive readers, absorbing information without the chance to alter any single part of the text. Nonfiction can, at times, breach this debilitating barrier.
Take for instance the book on poverty, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. It contains statistics, hypotheses, and theories dedicated to finding solutions for solving an everyday problem present throughout all corners of the earth. For myself, an undergraduate student, these challenges are currently still insurmountable. But if I could somehow prepare and educate myself well enough, accumulate the resources necessary to dedicate my life to eradicating poverty, I could possibly disprove or bolster the arguments laid bare in the book. Readers of nonfiction, no matter how limited they might be for the time being, have the potential to change the stories of the world to their own liking. And maybe one day add one of their own.
As I’ve already mentioned, I’m still traveling through the long road of academia. I’ll have to wait another three years until I can hold my own degree, and be properly equipped to conduct researches and jot down my findings. For now, all I can do is learn as much as I can, be the sources come in the form of lecturers, or as the topic of this article shows, nonfiction books and academic journals.
College is a kind of training period for whichever career we have chosen for ourselves. There is nothing wrong with breezing through it, as many of my peers do. Reading certainly isn’t mandatory, as long as one is clever enough to exploit the faults hidden within the system. But the advantages one receives from poring through pages upon pages of insights regarding the sometimes horrific conditions of our earth and our fellow men not to be trifled with.
One of my favorite works is Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. It is an intimidating volume made up of nearly a thousand pages. But the information it holds is a comprehensive recounting and complete analysis—from an evolutionary psychology perspective—of our history as a species. The clan feuds of our nomadic predecessors, the rise and falls of civilizations, the origins of torture, how we came to be what we are today, are all discussed in detail and speculated upon; leaving many unanswered questions open for the reader’s wonderment. Though Pinker’s work is historic in nature, it showcases why we behave and think the way we do, thus enabling us to provide concrete explanations for the behaviors and actions of our species. Perhaps even come up with our own interpretations. To put it in simpler terms, Pinker—and those of his league—has granted us the tools and the blueprint for renovating the world as we see fit. Now that may sound like an exaggeration, but there is a reason for why he is one of the most cited and respected experts in the fields of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. His creations are noteworthy for anyone interested in the human condition.
Although works such as Pinker’s are enlightening, as with any other written works, nonfictional books cannot be taken without a grain of salt. Indeed, skepticism is part of the appeal and prerequisite for appreciating them. Science, both of the natural and social hemispheres, invites passionate arguments regarding any and all ideas put forward by either the professionals or the laymen. Those who read and pay careful attention to the ongoing debates can certainly contribute a useful thought or two, or at the very least learn from them. Whichever way one chooses to participate, taking in a worthwhile lesson or adding an additional fuel to the pyre of ideas, are most welcomed by the scientific community.
These are the reasons why I more often choose to lock myself up in a quiet room surrounded by books, than drive through the city at night. To change the world, to better it as much as we can, we need all the facts and data that have been made available. Should there be none, we must be the ones who set out to find them. For these discoveries have a chance to enhance the lives of not only ourselves, but those around us as well.
It is true that many of the nonfictional topics are unpleasant to the mind’s eye. They can be grotesque, violent, shedding new light into the darkest parts of human nature. I have certainly been startled by the methods of executions—primarily the one which involves slicing a human being in half from the bottom up—employed in the Medieval Era. And yes, the texts themselves are quite daunting with acronyms and terminologies unfamiliar to the common populace—god knows I cannot process even the simplest of charts. But with all these shortcomings, the rewards waiting at the end of the last paragraph are well worth the effort.
Without the contributions of nonfictional authors, one must scour all parts of the globe just to grab the most basic understanding of our place in the universe. Not to mention the countless issues associated with experimentations, physical and mental hazards, logistics, et cetera. Books truly are a window, not merely to the worlds beyond our reach, but to the one we live in as well. To give them further credit, they are also the gateways for bringing the abstract into the realm of reality.
We must not limit ourselves to our stations. Incapable as we might be today, I believe that there is a chance, however slim, for us all to use the knowledge we’ve acquired over the years. Whoever we might be—a student, blue-collar worker, or any other position often disregarded as intellectually negligible—there are plethoras of materials ready for our minds to harvest.
The author would like to note that he is an avid fan of fiction, and is currently still waiting in agony for the last installment of The Kingkiller Chronicle series.