Fiction, Non-Fiction, and the Eternal Return


As mentioned in a previous post, I have just finished reading one book and am in search of a new one. Since I began to work in FON, I have not had much time at all to read, but this summer I have read two very good books: “Another Country” by James Baldwin and “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow. What I have noticed is that there is a big difference between reading fiction and non-fiction, and the difference reminds me of Neitzsche’s concept of the Eternal Return. Basically, fiction is always alive, while non-fiction dies upon completing the book. Ironic, but here is what I mean:

My methodology for choosing literature is fairly simple. In general, I prefer to read novels from around the world. So what I do is ask friends who their favorite writers are from their home countries. Or, I do research on the internet. Then, I either purchase the books in the UK or the States (I prefer to read English translations rather than Spanish ones). When I go to the States, I usually come back with 5 to 10 novels. This means that I constantly have unread books on my bookshelf in waiting. This is what I love about reading, having unread books living on my bookshelf.

Even greater is when you have forgotten one of your books on the shelf for a few years and then pick it up only to realize what a fantastic story it is. You then realize that you have had the lives of its characters living inside the closed pages in your house for years. And when you are done with the story, you put the book back on the shelf, where the characters may continue to live. It is like leaving a movie playing repeatedly on your DVD player with the TV turned off. The story continues to play ad infinitum even though no one is watching or there to witness it. Sometimes I even look at my bookshelf and am happy to know that my favorite characters have still not ceased to exist, even if they end up dying in the novel.

Isn’t that what Nietzsche meant by the Eternal Return? We continue to relive and replay our lives forever across time? On the other hand, after having read the biography about the life of Alexander Hamilton, I did not get that same feeling. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Alexander Hamilton is a fascinating character, and the book made me want to learn as much as possible about the early development of the United States. Also, Hamilton’s life story is perfect for a movie or for a novel. Nevertheless, because it is a true story, it really ends. The character passes aways in real life as he does in the story. The reader knows the character is dead. And on my bookshelf, the story has been told and comes to its finale.

I often think that that is the problem that we as live individuals face with writing down anything that happens to us. We become compromised by the story that we tell because we have written it down, thus stripping it of its vitality. By telling a factual account, we smother its ability to be anything other than how we have told it. Yet, fiction does not bear this characteristic. I am reminded of when I first saw the Shogun mini-series as a child. I wanted to watch it over and over again, thinking that maybe the next time I saw it, Mariko-san (the female protagonist) would not die. It’s like my nephew Thomas who, after his favorite team loses, wakes early in the morning to get the newspaper to see if maybe his team had actually won. The problem is that once you read the “facts” in the paper, there is no longer any hope that the story may come to a different ending. Hence, the difference between fact and fiction.

Thus, when I am sad that a novel comes to the end, I am at least consoled by the notion that it will continue to replay itself over and over and over again on my bookshelf, long past the time that my own story has come to its final, definitive end.

1 Comment

Filed under Digressions, Literature

One response to “Fiction, Non-Fiction, and the Eternal Return

  1. Pingback: Grave Error » Noruwei no Mori

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