Sunday, January 21, 2007

Thoughts on books that inform and entertain

A reader asks . . . Whoa. Stop. Halt. “A reader?!” I wasn’t at all certain there were any. This is frightening. Sobering. It introduces a new element of accountability. I’m no longer writing for my own amusement. Sorry, I just needed to interject that note of perspective Now, to continue, a reader, who identifies himself as Pierre, asks, “I'm glad you think that Water for Elephants was a good read; I just checked it out today. Along with that, I like books that do the simple job of entertaining! Do you know any books like it that I may be interested in?”

To demonstrate just how seriously I’ve taken my new responsibilities, I haven’t thought about much except this question since it popped into my virtual mailbox 12 hours ago. Except, I wasn’t really thinking about Pierre's question. I was thinking about this question, “What books, like Water for Elephants, do a good job of both informing and entertaining the reader?” That’s the question I’m going to delve into, although I will respond to Pierre’s question as well.

The best books that strike a balance between informing and entertaining are non-fiction. Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals and Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air are examples of this. Many of the traditional elements of fiction are present in these books. Hillenbrand, Goodwin and Krakauer are storytellers who rely on a strong narrative. Bobby Fischer Goes to War and Wittgenstein’s Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidinow also come to mind. I’m certain Pierre can offer additional non-fiction titles.

Fiction is problematic. We (I) must issue a caution. Caveat emptor. Let the reader beware. The challenge posed by fiction when considering books that balance information with entertainment is that novelists may legitimately do what they damn well please – compress timelines, discard actual people (after all, they are only characters in a novel), combine two people into one, put words into someone’s mouth, etc. This means that we must weigh the writer’s motives. In Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen genuinely wants to tell us (teach us) something about traveling circuses in the Depression. She has no reason, for example, to write that Stars and Stripes Forever is the disaster march – meaning something had gone badly wrong at the circus – if it were really Stars Get In Your Eyes or How Much Is That Doggie In The Window. Her novel is not improved in any measurable way by altering the facts. So she doesn’t. That warning dispatched, let’s consider fiction that balances information and entertainment.

I tried to think of criteria for this, but was largely unsuccessful. For example, I couldn’t say that a novel striking the balance we seek would be capable of producing a respectable work of non-fiction. That’s an elusive standard because you could produce a work of non-fiction based on about any novel out there. That’s true, in part, because if you parse almost any novel (hedging my bets a little here) you will learn something about the life and times that the characters’ inhabit. For example, I suspect there are at least a few historical and biographical books about life on the Nebraska prairie leading up to the 20th Century, but that does not mean that Willa Cather’s fine My Antonia is an example of the type of novel we are attempting to identify. It’s not. It is one of my very favorite books. It is a classic. It does not successfully blend information and entertainment. That’s not Cather’s goal.

I can only conclude that the search for such a novel is like shopping in a store with no prices – if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it. In the same way, you either know the kind of book I am talking about or you don’t.

If we cast our net back almost a century, I think that Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth or Age of Innocence meet our standard. Both novels are vastly entertaining, while patiently guiding us through the nuances of the manners and mores of the wealthy denizens of Old New York. Of more recent vintage, I think Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead or Ian McEwan’s Atonement both fit this category. I hadn’t thought of Gilead in this way until reading Hornby’s column on the book. Hornby observes that Gilead contains “beautiful luminous passages about grace, and debt and baptism . . . there are complicated and striking ideas on every single page.” He’s right. Robinson elaborates on the basic tenets of Christianity. (I might have said fundamental tenets, but that’s a good word gone bad through its unfortunate application to a few overly-enthusiastic brethren.) McEwan provides a startling vivid picture of what it might have been like to have lived through the evacuation of Dunkirk at the outset of World War II. I’d also add Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons to this shortlist. I’m only a 100 pages into this novel, but Frazier gives us a remarkable account of life on the American frontier around the time of the Jackson Administration.

Naturally, historical fiction comes to mind, although the warning issued above must be trotted out once more. There be dragons here. Patrick O’Brian, author of the splendid Jack Aubrey series, is a great example of an author who balances information and entertainment. Another example is Bernard Cornwell. I have not read Cornwell’s Sharpe series, but I am a fan of his recent trilogy set in England in the late ninth century.

That’s my thoughts. Let’s hear yours. What titles, fiction or non-fiction, do you believe are good examples of books that successfully balance the ability to inform with the need to entertain? Finally, Pierre, back to your original question. I’d plow through the various posts of this blog during the past year for suggestions on entertaining novels. There’s no shortage of them. I might suggest the novels of Ivan Doig or Laurie Colwin, the short stories of Alice Munro, Michael Connelly is damned entertaining. Then there’s Kent Haruf, Annie Proulx and Jane Smiley. Oh, and . . . well, you get the idea.

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