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Not Being Snobby About Non-Fiction

Non-Fiction That Is Anti-growth?

Someone went on Nanowrimo’s forum and asked if the participants thought fiction was ‘anti-growth.’ The answer, of course, was a resounding no. I mean, the OP asked people in the middle of writing fictional works. We all thought our art was worth it.

No one, however, pointed out that non-fiction could also be ‘anti-growth.’

I want to make a distinction here. Many non-fiction works aren’t precisely helping you grow much as a person, or they are only encouraging personal growth under certain circumstances. They are still valuable if you enjoyed them. I would never avoid them, and there is nothing wrong with them. People have to simply accept that they don't immediately make you smarter.

I just finished reading a book about the Crusades. I’m not about to go marching through the orchards to attack Acre, so I didn’t get any practical advice from it. It was mostly old information, too, so I wasn’t exactly discovering much history from it. I suppose I absorbed a little more information from it, but it’s just more reading, with trivia following the same neural pathways that it always does and undoubtedly dissolving into nothing along them too. I strengthened the reading synapses, but I already read a lot, so those synapses are already beefy. Along with my Youtube addiction, it’s just more passive absorption of words.

If I took notes and was coming to something new, it might be different. Under the circumstances though, it is a stretch to call it anything besides edu-tainment.

Sensational Cheapees

Another category I want defend is the cheap non-fiction short. Collections of historical tidbits focusing on mad kings or serial killers fall into this category. These types of books lean heavily on the more sensational aspects of something, and they can speculate heavily to make up word count instead of digging into the subject matter.

The sheer number of cheap-thrill true crime or trivia books would astound a person, but they can hardly be called ‘pro-growth.’ There is not any deep analysis, they are frequently giving the most surface-level account, and they are designed to be more titillating than educational.

Look, I’m not condemning these books or reading such as these. We would live in a very sad world if we never indulged in a little cheap sensationalism now and again, and I enjoy them for themselves. I went on a binge of reading short true-crime books by Bill Schechter, and there was some broadening of my horizons there. Well, it illuminated a bit of the past that I didn’t know much about, at any rate, provided it was true.

Honestly, these books come with bit of homework. Since the writers did little in the way of investigation and research, the books are only partially right. Their joy is in their pop-scholarly breeziness, not their ability to educate.

I don’t kid myself that I am somehow getting so smart from them, though, and I most certainly don’t act like they are so-oo-oo much purer and healthier than, say, my cheapy murder mystery thriller or historical romance. I could even say that the act of trying to decode the clues with my buddy Mathew Shardlake or Kinsey Milhone stretches my brain far more than passively absorbing a bunch of wrong facts about some cold case.

These cheapees also rely heavily on our prejudices. They are sensational because they stroke the already installed buttons. Some go harder at this than others, and when they do, they are short-lived crap. Cheapee sensationalism gives us a quick dose of edu-tainment, but it gets boring and dumb fast if they are too cheapee.

Genuinely Anti-growth

Cheapees bring a little something to people and at least entertain. There are some other books that subtract from the readers.

In fact, I’d say something like ‘The Secret’ is anti-growth.

Nothing stunts a person like wishing that things are better and being encouraged to do nothing but wish some more. The central tenet is simply toxic, and the useful things that people might get out of it are more along the lines of insight into what it is to be so coddled (or perhaps terrified) that this makes sense to you. It will be under the non-fiction banner, but that doesn’t mean it has been scanned for veracity or helpfulness. A publisher merely thought they could get money by selling it and the author wrote something other than a made-up narrative.

No particular genre is immune to producing cheap, wrong-headed nonsense, but I am actually hesitant about including all books that are actively wrong from this category. Yes, you can publish a book claiming that the Earth is hollow, or that you can eat nothing but air and live long. Someone will believe you, but they have the opportunity to read other things and learn better, which could be a way to sharpen wits. It could give you the chance to actively disprove the nonsense.

If you don’t question these books and accept them, though, you have actively embraced misinformation and added a piece to a warped world view. At least the misinformation can be refuted when the ego isn't buffed.

Some self-help books are aimed at puffing up the egos of people and narrowing their horizons. They exist to bash others and to promulgate profoundly self-centered thinking. This is genuinely taking away from human perception.

There isn’t a bright, shining line to draw around them, and probably no one body or person could make that judgement. Probably not even whole societies. On the other hand, when you go wading into your non-fiction reads, realize that you can be discerning about what you take away from them.


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