Fiction, non-fiction, and memory

Milan Ilnyckyj in a red coat

I have a new theory about why I do so much better with non-fiction than with fiction. It has to do with the way I read and the relationship between reading and kinds of memory. There has probably been no point in the last decade in which I was reading only one book at a time. At present, I am reading thirteen. It is routine for me to leave a partially completed book for weeks or months, while engaging with something more immediately interesting or urgent.

With non-fiction, every sentence and chapter you read gets integrated into your general schema of knowledge on the topic in question. You can read one chapter on cryptography or ice core sampling or the life of Voltaire and it will henceforth be stored along with related thoughts and memories in a general databank of knowledge. Admittedly, the databank is full of rats that chew their way through ideas long left uncontemplated. The point is that there is a single and relatively well ordered web of knowledge in one’s general library.

Fiction, by contrast, demands the recollection of a lot of specific facts in an organized way. You need to remember the world of that book or story: a world potentially very distinct from the ‘general world’ about which non-fiction knowledge is collected. Remembering characters, world characteristics, relationships, and plot points all calls upon us to treat a fictional universe with a similar kind of importance to the real universe. While this is simple enough when reading a single book at a time, it does not fit very well into a reading pattern based on reading many books in parallel, sometimes abandoning any particular one of them for months at a time.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

5 thoughts on “Fiction, non-fiction, and memory”

  1. Interesting argument, but I think my brain works differently. I find an entire fictional world not so difficult to be stored into memory because the characters, events, relationships and all things are interconnected, thus forming a web from one point you can easily link to the other. With non-fictions, I tend to remember the general arguments or themes more than actual facts. I’ve never been really good with remembering plain facts or examples that support an argument. The reason is probably because somewhere at the back of my head, I know that these facts can always be re-discovered from reference sources. Their rediscovery would undoubtedly take much extra time and effort and most of the time, I never try to re-discover them. I recognize this being one of my weaknesses in learning and am trying to overcome it with a reasonable amount of effort.

  2. The second note here is that despite my better memory for fictions, I don’t read them as much as non-fictions. I don’t have a very good explanation or agument to justify my preference at the present moment. However, I believe I tend to consider fiction-reading as a less efficient way to accumulate knowledge. I also somewhat dislike experiencing strong emotions which compromise logical thinking and fictions almost always stir up some feelings in me. In any case, I am not trying to down-grade the value of fictional work. Like visual and performing arts, it serves to enrich and even establish culture and moreover, some fictions demonstrate an impressive level of creativity and therefore deserve to be well appreciated.

  3. It is interesting to analyze your motivations when it comes to literature. For me, I enjoy fiction that focuses on the human experience, and our perceptions of reality. For this reason, I respond to magical realism in a way that I would never do with non-fiction. Murakami takes reality, and shifts it in such a way that makes you question the perceived realities that we generally accept as true.

    In my opinion, good fiction observes and asks questions but does not answer, or assume. It should provide thoughts to chew on, in a way that non-fiction never does for me. Where good non-fiction informs, good fiction asks you. For this reason I find it much easier to be engaged in a work of fiction, because I feel like there is a sort of dialogue between you and the author.

  4. Preference for non-fiction or fiction probably boils down to whether you prefer to read facts or stories.

  5. Hmmmn, so you’re positing that your reading style is more conducive to appreciating nonfiction than fiction. What if you go on holiday & take only one or two fiction books – does that alter your experience?
    I am generally only reading 1 non-work book at a time (there are always dozens of work books ‘in process’, many of which challenge what we mean by ‘truth’ or ‘stories’) but even so I largely prefer non-fiction. I fear that I’ve become terribly literal-minded, because I concluded (after much thought on the subject) that my basic objection to fiction is that it isn’t true .

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