After a two-year hiatus from reading fiction, I’ve picked it up again.

While in grad school, I immersed myself in the writing of great nonfiction authors: Agee, McPhee, Kidder, etc. You name ’em, I at least tried to read ’em. I was undeterred from nonfiction even during holiday breaks, alternating between narrative journalism and memoir in an effort to learn as much as I possibly could while I had immediate access to nonfiction experts (my professors).

To be honest, I didn’t even know how much I missed my cozy novels. I was even a little reluctant to read fiction again. After all, it had been so long, and I tend to treat books – and by extension, genres – like friends. How in the world would we get reacquainted after so much time had gone by? Would it be awkward? Would I lose interest?

Perhaps, I thought, it might lessen the shock to begin with historical fiction, or a smattering of short stories.


But no. As soon as I read the first page of Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, fiction and I were back in good graces. Reading about make-believe characters in a make-believe world reminded me of the delicious escape books can provide. It tucked in the driven, learning-oriented side of my brain, giving it permission to take some much-needed rest.

For once, I wasn’t analyzing the book’s structure as I read, or its author’s interviewing techniques. I was reading for pure enjoyment, having returned to a playground that allowed me to grasp for the monkey bars or clamber across the jungle gym instead of spending all my time building things – or fighting – in the sand box.

Not that we nonfiction writers can’t learn a lot from our fiction sisters. Claire Messud’s descriptions of her characters are priceless. She rounds them out with impressive zeal, making them tangible – describing them more tangibly, even, than many accomplished nonfiction writers portray their real-life subjects. She notes one character’s “resemblance to a baby seal,” and another’s “Nabokovian brow.” Brilliant.

Messud also captures every detail of her characters’ surroundings, knowing – in an almost eerie show of authorial intuition – just what we readers need to see, noting, for example, “a long, plump, pillowed sofa stretched the length of one wall,” at a dinner party. Better yet, she writes that “upon it four women were disposed like odalisques in a harem.”


In celebration of my return to a multi-genred life, I’ve set up a “Bookshelf” here on my blog, where all you lovely people can see what I’ve been reading, and where you, too, can recommend great books from your own libraries.

Happy reading …


2 thoughts on “Bookshelf

  1. When I hear of someone who’s given up reading for any length of time I break into a cold sweat. I’m a full-time author, for God’s sake, and if people stop reading books, I’m selling pencils and destroying my pancreas with hard booze. Perhaps that’s why I give away so many books. Trying to prime the pump. Complete self-interest on my part, a terrible conflict of interest. And yet people thank me for my gifts, not realizing my dark motivations…


  2. Hi Cliff –

    Thanks for reading my blog. A note here to clarify, though – just in case. I never, EVER, gave up reading – just reading fiction! And then only so that I could focus on sharpening my own nonfiction writing skills. I think it was Raymond Carver who said that if he couldn’t write, he’d chop wood. I’m in his camp … and it sounds like you are, too. We need as many readers as we can get.



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