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In Defense of Non-Fiction

My dad often proffers his opinion that God made food so that we would have something to dip in ranch dressing.  The former is secondary to the latter.  In this calculus, the ranch dressing is the necessary part.  The food is simply a vehicle for the enjoyment of ranch.

Similarly, it is my opinion that God made novels so that we would have something to talk about at book clubs.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I definitely enjoy the comraderie and vibrant conversation that a book club can provide.  I adore a good gathering of bibliophiles, regardless of our topic or genre.  But, the novels on most any book club reading list are, for me, simply the vehicles to get to the stuff I really like.  If I had my druthers, I would read non-fiction almost exclusively.

I’m one of THOSE people.

I’ve been this way since adolescence for sure and probably even before then.  A diary, a letter, an essay, or even an encyclopedia is preferable to me over most fiction.  When I was twelve or thirteen years old, I dedicated my entire summer break to reading the whole collection of biographies on the Kennedy family available at my local library.  While my contemporaries were wetting their feet on Danielle Steel, I was immersed in some real life romantic drama and intrigue—although, admittedly, of probably the same moral equivalency as any cheap paperback romance.

I have tried to elevate my tastes in non-fiction since then, but I do still enjoy a good, juicy biography or (even better) autobiography.  I have often wondered what it is about my psychology that orients me more towards this genre than the fiction that consumes every other person in my home and the majority of the other living, breathing human beings that I know.  I cannot say for sure.

During the quarantine, in an attempt to encourage myself to pick up and actually finish a novel, I read an article making the case for reading fiction—yes, I do see the irony of my reading non-fiction in order read more fiction.

The article was helpful.

It gave excellent reasons to read more fiction.  It said,

“reading literary fiction helps people develop empathy, theory of mind, and critical thinking.”

I want all of that for myself.  But, upon reflection and a quick glance at my nonfiction library, I actually believe that non-fiction can and does nurture those very things in me, too.

Books like Eli Wiesel’s Night or Immaculee Ilibagiza’s Left to Tell  or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings have all chiseled a deep and abiding empathy into my soul for those who have lived lives of suffering that I have never personally experienced.  They were not just stories to me.  They were participations (albeit remotely proximate) in the reality and the humanity of another person.  That sort of experience is unforgettable.

Books like Francis Beckwith’s Defending Life:  A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice have helped form and hone my personal understanding of the abortion debate.  Having read it multiple times, I will never underestimate the razor sharp philosophical question:  “What is it?” Trust me. . .this book is a masterclass in legal precedent, moral philosophy, and secular argumentation.  And, Sarah’s Hill’s This is Your Brain on Birth Control:  The Surprising Science of Women, Hormones, and the Law of Unintended Consequences is a recent favorite that has broadened my knowledge and challenged me to understand a subject from a perspective completely off my beaten path and often in conflict with my own–it’s so good and yet it’s one of those books I am cautious to recommend given some of content.  I still recommend it.

Books like The Hidden Power of Kindness by Lawrence Lovasik and An Introduction to the Devout Life  by Frances de Sales as well as his collection of letters to and from St. Jane Frances de Chantal have taken my pursuit of personal growth from the mediocrity of “self-help” to the soaring possibilities of real and constant conversion to Christ in the tiny, daily, and often mundane aspects of being a fallen and sinful person among other fallen and sinful people.  And, speaking of self-help. . .a fantastic alternative to the popular guru texts that I have recently found is a 2-volume set called Saintly Solutions by Joseph Esper.  In these books, Esper gives saint-help for everything from gossip to irritation to family strife.  These are gold.  I probably read from them once a week.

Books like Edith Stein’s Essays on Woman have helped mold my own perspective on the dignity and importance of being a woman.  Her thought has made me a more critical feminist and a better woman.

Books like Scott Hahn’s The Lamb’s Supper and Ed Sri’s A Biblical Walk Through the Mass have left indelible marks on my consciousness about the Catholic things we do and why we do them.

Books like Christopher West’s The Good News About Sex and Marriage and Fulton Sheen’s Three to Get Married have sparked countless conversations with others—in the most surprising places and times–and have informed my own way of teaching my children about issues regarding sexuality and the current culture’s perspective on marriage.

Books like Kelly Corrigan’s The Middle Place  or Frank Gilbreth’s and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey’s Cheaper By the Dozen are wonderful memoirs that have thrown me into the most exquisite torrents of tears and laughter.  I cannot help but read certain parts aloud to whomever is near when I crack open a copy.

One of my favorite gifts from my husband from years ago is a tiny volume entitled A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor.  While I might not reach instinctively for a novel, I do really like short stories–O’Connor’s are among the very best that quickly come to mind.  So, imagine my joy in being able to read her private thoughts about the things that mattered most to her!  I’m pretty sure I was the exact target audience for that one.  In that same genre, I would also highly recommend Peter Kreeft’s Before I Go .

I am also a sucker for a good cook book. . .Frank Stitt’s, for instance.  Williams Sonoma’s The Essentials of Baking gave me courage to use yeast and I will forever be grateful..  Also, I have all the Pots, Pans, and Pioneers cookbooks–they are a little tether to my motherland.  They will never leave my home.

This Christmas, my parents gifted a member of my household with the new book America on Trial by Robert Reilly.  It wasn’t a gift for me, but it is now.  What a great unfolding of American culture and the political order of our constitutional democracy beginning in ancient classical thought through modernity!  It’s a fantastic thought exercise for any American historian and philosopher–either side of the political spectrum.  You do not have to agree with the verdict to be edified and challenged.

I could write a whole non-fiction book reviewing all the non-fiction books I’ve read over the years in an attempt to raise good and virtuous young men. . . I may actually do that!

And, my stacks of “coffee table” art books containing gorgeous depictions of art from all times and all places immediately transport me and elevate my senses with one or two minutes of perusing.

I know there is a place for fiction.  I get it.  But, non-fiction will always have my heart.

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Franchelle Jaeger

Franchelle writes from Nashville, TN.

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