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Karin Schimke

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

Options rather than answers: the rewards of novels and non-fiction

The narrator of The Lacuna (Barbara Kingsolver) sheepishly admits to the character of Leo Tolstoy that he is writing a novel. “It’s nothing that will liberate the people,” he says.

Tolstoy replies: “A novel! Why do you say this won’t liberate anyone? Where does a man go to be free, whether he is poor or rich or even in prison? To Dostoyevsky! To Gogol!”

It’s an imagined conversation, but Tolstoy’s exclamation rings true to the character Kingsolver has created.

The novel, that oft-denigrated – but tenacious – genre; when will people stop looking down their noses at it? When will they acknowledge that it creates a safe space for slipping sideways from our own confining lives and that that is a good thing?

Whenever someone tells me in sniffy tones that they can’t be bothered with fiction, I have to bite my tongue just a little, as I often must when I encounter other examples of dense arrogance.

There’s no doubt that personal reading history, psychic developmental leaps, personal taste, age and perhaps even (I say this gingerly) gender, all colour people’s reading preferences. I am more partial to fiction than to non-fiction  in general, but at times I tire of what fiction offers and find my reading needs more adequately met by non-fiction.

Usually my needs are met by variety. So, while I’ve been reading The Lacuna, I’ve also been consulting a very old book of mine on Frida Kahlo (Kingsolver’s novel is about Kahlo and her communist artist husband Diego Riviera), called Kahlo (by Andrea Kettenmann and published by Taschen), as well as the thorough Reader’s Digest Facts at your Fingertips (because I needed to remind myself of Russia’s leaders in the twentieth century). This last is faster and more reliable than Google.

Before The Lacuna I was swept like so many millions around the world into Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning The Tiger’s Wife, where the shards of magic dazzle in the blanket weave of a rich and eloquent modern fable.

My books seem to have a travelling pattern: the novel is intrepid, travelling everywhere with me in my handbag or the crook of my arm – a charm against wasted reading time and boredom (all that waiting around in cars and queues when I could be reading). There’s only ever one novel on the go.

Non-fiction is more domesticated, but more restless, staying home but shifting between the rooms of the house and places I sit (or stand – I sometimes read while stirring pots). Currently there are two of them open and face-down in various convenient places, the most compelling being All About Love, by Lisa Appignanesi (Virago), a magisterial, humane and astoundingly researched work, girded and bolstered by Appigananesi’s intelligent, brawny prose.

The other one arrived in the post one day in December: a gift from a male friend of mine who has a son the same – rather spiky – age as my own pre-pubescent son. We’d been talking about their odd mood swings, intermittent testosteronal surges that flop into poignant moments of hold-me-I’m-just-a-little-boy.

My son was next to me when I opened the unexpected package: Raising Boys by Australian psychologist Steve Biddulph. He raised a sceptical eyebrow and said: “Not every answer can be found in books, you know.”

He’s right of course. Neither fiction nor non-fiction have The Answer to everything, maybe even to anything. They just offer varieties of options, little soupçons of possibilities, and – if we’re lucky –clumps of truths that will never be ours, but settle, as only truth can, in the corners of the heart. If you have a mind at all you will absorb, digest and reject everything you’ve ever read in the lifetime’s span of reading. And found your own answers.

Speaking of my son: he is the fussiest of readers. When he can’t find anything by one of his favourite authors he mopes around complaining about the dearth of reading material and refusing to be to be drawn down unexplored reading avenues. He has his own mysterious reading road map.

For months, while waiting for the next Rick Riordan novel to come out and make him happy for the two days in which he disappears from this world into Percy Jackson’s, I have been trying to get him to read Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There.

He refused on the grounds that it’s not fiction and (this one unspoken) it is recommended by his mother – whose general intelligence he is currently regularly questioning.

Yesterday he flumped into my office, barely able to speak from laughing. “Mom! Mom! Listen to this…” and he read me a paragraph from Neither Here Nor There.

Either his desperation for something to read, or a moment of weakness in his will to resist me and non-fiction, had brought him around finally.

And so begins, I hope, a new relationship with a new genre for one ardent reader. – Schimke is a poet, author and columnist, and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

 


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Home is where books go plop and shelves for uncanny alliances

I know it is here somewhere, in this shelf. This is where I put it. This is where I saw it the last time I saw it and thought: “Ah, I forgot about you. Hello book.” And yet it is not here.

I am sure the spine is ivory coloured, and just less than a centimetre thick. I could be mistaken though. The other day I was looking for an old favourite, utterly convinced I was hunting a yellow spine with red letters, cursing the thief who stole it, only to locate it as a beige spine with brown letters.

Lately in my home a book’s place is where it comes to rest. The stringent rules I had for organising my books have become sloppy over time.

My dictionary shelf still only contains dictionaries, poetry shelf only poetry, journalism shelf only journalism books, medical shelf only medical books and my very special collection of the illustrated children’s books I have found remarkable and memorable and to which I often return, are on a low shelf in the kitchen where children can reach them too. The kitchen’s where – logically – the recipe books reside too.

Other than that, old and new writers are bedding down together haphazardly. The German and Dutch writers have gravitated to the far upper left shelf in some semblance of continental order, and the Afrikaans and South African English writers are so cosy you’d never believe there to be historical animosity. South Africans of all languages and races are mingling with Australians and Indians and Nigerians. There’s a loose, happy democracy going on in my bookshelves and it seems oblivious to my need for order, and the sometimes pressing urgency to find a book very quickly.

I often read several books at once and I read everywhere. This book untidiness leads to books sometimes being hurriedly squeezed into any available space on the shelves in the house.

How people arrange their bookshelves is always of interest to me. Bookshelves themselves hold great fascination and I even own a small collection of books about bookshelves.

Some people arrange them by topic (like I do), some by size, and the more methodical go for the library option of arranging by author’s surname.

A friend of mine recently designed and built his own enormous bookshelf, using Piet Mondrian as inspiration for the size and shape of the shelves. Then he proceeded to arrange his entire collection – again a la Mondrian – according to the colour of the books’ spines. His main motivation was that it would make it easy for the family to put books away.

At first I found this funny. Now I think it might be quite a wise idea when you’re an anytime, anywhere reader.

This month’s books however, are still scattered around the house, but mostly around the bed on already heavily laden side-tables. Bed always feels like the most appropriate place to finish a novel.

Craig Higginson’s The Landscape Painter, Michiel Heyns’ Ground Work and Rayda Jacobs’ Joonie, wait patiently for shelving along with Wuthering Heights, a recent bargain purchase, and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, which I have finally come around to.

I must remember to memorise the colour of their spines before I pack them away though. – Schimke is an independent writer, poet and columnist and editor of the Cape Times books pages.This is from her column Chapters & Verse which appears in the Cape Times on the last Friday of every month.


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