Reflections on reading nonfiction; Or, I should really stop making sweeping pronouncements

This conversation happened about a week ago, before I read Smoke Gets in Your Eyes:

“So now you read memoirs?” asked a coworker.
“Apparently, I do,” I replied.

The week before this conversation, I had tried to fend off a recommendation of Reading Lolita in Tehran. Because I don’t read memoirs. I doubt the authors so much that I wonder about what they’re not telling me. Because I’m a librarian who teaches people to question information.

Looking back at the books I’ve read this month, there is a surprising amount of nonfiction. I usually stick closely to fiction (though I jump from genre to genre). Now I’ve got The Ghost Map queued up on iTunes and a copy of Stasiland waiting in my to-read pile. What the hell happened?

“Young Woman Reading,” Cilius Andersen (1903).

As for memoirs, I still draw the line at full autobiography. The kind of memoirs that appeal to me are the ones that are about something else in addition to the writer’s life. I liked Smokes Gets in Your Eyes so much because the book followed an arc of ignorance to knowledge. It’s the kind of journey I can appreciate—more than a journey to wealth or power or fame.

I’ve mentioned my Nope List a few times recently. Lolita and most of James Joyce and Proust are on that list. So are autobiographies. The Nope List is more a mental Venn diagram circle than anything else, containing things that repel me or just don’t appeal. Books rarely come off the Nope List once they’re on it. I realize it’s contradictory of me to even have a Nope List. I encourage people to read widely and diversely whenever possible.

This is usually the point when I quote Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself“:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

My sudden fascination with odd memoirs, though, makes me reevaluate the whole notion of a Nope List. Perhaps there will come a time (doubtful) when I will read In Search of Lost Time. A Nope Lost limits me.


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