I went into a bookshop recently and spent a long time wandering through the fiction shelves, searching for a novel to read. I went through crime, sf, children’s books and general fiction, skimming titles, reading a few pages here and there, but nothing sprang out at me. I don’t know where the problem lies; have I become tired of fiction? Are novels losing their fizz? Or was I looking at a particularly uninspiring selection? I don’t think so: this was a fairly big bookshop with long lines of shelves.
I eventually left with two books. Both were in the Psychology section, although neither should have been; they’re both what would probably be described as “creative non-fiction” and so, perhaps, unclassifiable. One has proved to be brilliant; the other interesting and worthwhile.
The first was a wonderful book by Tim Parks about his struggles with illness: Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing. It’s funny, clever, illuminating, intriguing, surprising and highly recommended. Teach Us to Sit Still describes how he lived in a state of agony for many years, trying all kinds of conventional medical techniques, before finally, reluctantly, sceptically, turning to meditation. To his astonishment, it worked. To my astonishment, this book actually made me want to start meditating. I haven’t yet. It also made me want to read more Parks; I’ve read a couple of his non-fiction books before, but none of his novels; I’m now going to remedy that.
Then I read The Case for Working with Your Hands: or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good by Matthew Crawford. (Which was published in the US as Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work; the British title was changed because we have no idea what “shop class” means.) Not a perfect book by any means, but fascinating in places; he mingles some neat description of his own working life – as an electrician, a philosopher and a mechanic – with a polemic on the failings of modern industrial society.
I’ve also reviewed a couple of good books for the Guardian: a new biography of Romain Gary by David Bellos – author of the wonderful biography of Georges Perec – and his translation of Gary’s strange book, Hocus Bogus, which could also be called “creative non-fiction” too, although in a very different way to these other two.