December 6th, 2007

The world and I

Books - Fiction or real?

I enjoy reading. In fact, I love reading. In my opinion, books can be broadly classified into fiction and and those based upon reality. Autobiographies, histories, etc fall into the reality segment, and though I enjoy it, there is nothing as enlivening as to read a book of undiluted fiction. It is, indeed, even more interesting when the fiction is based on reality. A merger where after a point you cant differentiate between what really happened and what the writer imagined. At the point one is forced to look up the real history and demarcate for oneself the line which the writer so successfully blurred.

There are many people who prefer to read real stories. I should not call them stories, because the moment they are the real thing, they happened, they are portions of history. Portions of someones life. Something that really happened, through the eyes of the writer. Ordinary events, extraordinary events, real people and their responses to situations. Books based on reality are so often on extraordinary real people. They are about stimuli and responses to stimuli which are different from everyday life. As for the book language, since these are real events, rarely does the writer have the free hand to draw up an extraordinary portrait, give detailed thoughts, or delve into the significance of a certain portion of the life. S/he has a time limit, and, unless an autobiography, a severe curtailment of insight. The authors work remains to faithfully catalogue and present before the reader the Truth, inasmuch as is possible. This requires a skill set which is admirable, and distinct. It is almost the work of a historian. This is documentation at its best - a formation of history for all future generations to read, and understand the world we live in.

Recently, I had a discussion with someone on reading books. He mentioned an interesting reason to support reading books based on reality vs fiction. As per him, factual books are exactly that. Facts. The story of the book does not rely on a particular incident in a particular paragraph. Instead, it is a steady flow of material and information, towards an almost-known end. Thus, it is possible for a reader, who is not exactly an avid reader, to miss a paragraph here or there, be interrupted and yet continue to enjoy the book seamlessly. Hm. Quite a reasoning.
Then again, there are those of the school who just dont find anything that "didn't really happen" not worth spending time on. Whats the point, they say, to read about the story of Mr X, if he never existed? So what if it is a prejudiced memoir? At least its true. Better read Mien Kampf than an Ian Fleming.
There are others who consider it an inspiration. An "If Akio Morita could do it, perhaps so can I" feeling. Still others who think of it as getting a chunk of history in a highly readable form - the life of Babur for example. And still others who just want to know more behind something - people who would read The Google Story, for example. If "Maverick" wouldn't have been there, perhaps the world would have seen a few 100 less entrepreneurs (those with the seed capital of course)
Celebrity books form a different category altogether, and really, sometimes their lives are just too spectacular for fiction to take its place. Same goes for gangsters.

Yet, Im a devoted fan of Fiction. Nothing like letting your imagination soar, entering the lives of people, because they are fictitious. These are normal people. And you dont know what they do later. In so many books you will find the main character to be just like... your neighbour. A person who never did anything spectacular or memorable in his life. Yet, his day to day life can become a part of yours. His thoughts depicted by the author in all his splendour, unrestrained by not knowing. The skill of of the writer comes to the fore, to describe people, thoughts, places. Since you have never seen Dorian Gray, the credit to imagine what that young man looked like belongs completely to Oscar Wilde. And until the last page you do not know that he lives or dies. And, if he really existed, would Wilde have managed to give us those lively dinner conversations? Would he have depicted so wonderfully the turmoil in the mind of a man siezed by an unimaginable power? And most importantly, would the fantastic story have ever existed?
Willy Wonka and his famous chocolate factory would never have been there to tempt Charlie or his poor grandfather. Oh! How lovely to go to a chocolate factory like that?!
Where would one place God in reality books? Highly disputable, it would be a preaching book else one for an Aethist. Nowhere except in Fiction would someone manage to seamlessly merge paralell universes with God and Angels, like in the trilogy - His Dark Materials (movie to be released tomorrow - yippee!)
What about a world consisting of elves and, yes, Hobbits?
What would you do without a Sherlock Holmes or an Hercule Poirot? Surely crime solving is not that fashionable in real life?!
What about a Kafkaesque imagination?
And really, where else would you get an option of meeting Foul Ole Ron whose smell itself has a personality?

And again, we have the extremely sordid real tales. Made more real than reality because instead of an outside opinion, in the writers mind they exist. Oliver Twist and David Copperfield may be fictional, but the real versions of them did exist somewhere in the world. They were not important enough for some author to document their lives and write a book on, but as far as Dickens was concerned, they were real, young boys. And they were real for the readers too.

When Camus wrote the Outsider, he wrote of a very real man. When he wrote the Plague he put a mirror to the face of humanity and society, with a very real problem - the plague.

Fiction is the one thing that makes reality even more interesting. Would crime be as interesting if Godfather was not there? And, would anyone really know the real world of Italian Crime masters of the 60s without it?

A reader of Arthur Hailey comes back to reality with a full knowledge of airplanes, and one of Alistair Mc Lean with an enviable knowledge of spies and ships. Who can forget the ammunition of Forsyth? or the legal know-how of Grisham?

Sure not all are masterpeices. But some reflect history as well, and probably better than a real book ever can. Anne Frank may be the story of a very real girl, but its real fame lies in her penning down her very thoughts. Yet, a book about a fictional girl is a more compelling read because it is not limited to a single incident. It is unlimited in its reach.

As for Hero worship? Well, sometimes its best to emulate a character from a book - there is no scope of hidden surprises. A very real character with very real flaws can exist inside covers of the best fictions, because they come out of minds of people who live in real the world.
There is no scope that the person does not live upto your expectations at some time in their lives - after all, real people are, human.One of my childhood freinds adored Darrel of Malory Towers fame. And why not? Darrel Rivers would never do wrong, never speak lies, take the right decisions, and had a character a mind a young girl can be envious of. Enid Blyton painted a lovely school life and the friend was free to be whatever she wanted to be when she exceeded Darrel's age, or when she was beyond scope of what Darrel did in the books. She would only think 'what would Darrel have done in a situation like this' and not have to look up a book for a real example, or Gasp! an bad example.

As for History based fiction. Well, the life of Alexander would have been a dry read were it not for the imaginations of Valerio Massimo Manfredi's trilogy. And would sculpting or painting have reached such divine proportions if we did not read the wonderful life and works of Michelangelo through the eyes of Irving Stone in The Agony and the Ecstacy? (If given a piece of marble I would have started sculpting then and there)

Ah well, a lot said, for books are one topic I just cant get enough of.

Sure, reality is interesting, infact sometimes it surpasses fiction. For what some people do in reality, an author researching and imagining cannot. However, when it comes to reading, fiction is what takes the cake.

And, if do not want to miss anything important by skipping a few paragraphs? Well, pick up a fiction where it makes not the least difference. Else, pick up a book which does not have paragraphs you would want to skip anyway.