For years I've turned up my nose at reading fiction, defending my distaste on the premise that a memoir or biography offers better insight into a past era or foreign place. Yet that really isn't an accurate statement: there are plenty of fictional books that invent characters and stories but take place in a historically accurate era or offer an window into a foreign culture. Nonetheless, I still leaned on that excuse whenever refusing to read fiction simply because I still couldn't really articulate why I held that preference.
The last book I read, The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure is a memoir about the author's exploration of the places featured in The Little House on the Prairie book series. Although there are some small tidbits about the Prairie lifestyle in the late 19th century, the book really focuses on the writer's personal journey and her childhood passion for the books.
Even though I felt no connection to the places or projects the writer completed along the way (I never read the books or watched the TV series), when she closes her book, reflecting on why this journey meant so much to her, it hit close to home and brought me to tears.
As I silently sobbed (mind you this occurred as I was riding a crowded train to work), I finally began to understand why I prefer non-fiction to fiction. And it actually had nothing to do with my prior excuse of history or foreign cultures...
I kept a steady diary from the age of eight on. On nights when I was craving a bit of nostalgia, I'd flip back through the entries from years past and let myself slip back into the euphoria, sorrows or excitement of my own life. When reading the pages full of heartache, my eyes would well up with tears, remembering those feelings of disappointment. Even though those moments had come and gone, knowing that they were real, and understanding that pain made it permissible - at least in my opinion - to let the emotion run free.
I feel the same way when reading anything non-fiction. I'm able to justify my tears and happiness as true empathy for what really happened, but I just can't allow myself the same freedom when reading a fictitious story - no matter how historically accurate. When I know that the story isn't true, I distance myself and dismiss the validity of my own and the character's emotions since it's only pretense.
What I love about reading is how intimate the relationship is with the characters and the author: you're alone with the words and plot, experiencing more of the story and someone's life as you turn each page. And when that story is true, either a personal account or a biography, that relationship is even deeper. And suddenly, reading those emotions and experiences are as personal as if I were rereading my own diary.