Over coffee this morning Bob talked about a book he serendipitously found as we snooped the City lights book store in san Francisco. The book was written by a person who owned one of the lords of Northumberland’s houses in England. Unimportant to most people, this factoid is of great interest to Bob who is researching the household accounts of the Percy families for dramatic records. This is what has taken Bob to England for three years running and for another near month this summer, testing my independence sorely. He hadn’t known this owner was a writer, and the book he’s written about poets of WWI era is proving to be a complete treasure for him.
He read me the Wilfred Owen poem again, “Dolce et Decorum Est,” and I was so struck by what Owen calls the “big lie,” as he portrays the English soldiers running from the gas, so sleep-deprived to be almost more a detriment to themselves than that enemy gas.
Bob and I have traveled in mid-March to early April to visit kids and grandkids in Philadelphia and San Francisco and had occasion to read several remarkable writers, not poets like Owen, but definitely of his caliber, though not his contemporaries. Two memoirists, Brian Stevenson and Ta-nihisi Coates, have two books out that will probably be on the 100 best books of the 21st century lists. Both men are African-American, one, Brian, a lawyer and Ta-nihisi a journalist, write and speak with a lyricism that’s almost the stuff of Horace and Owen. They define injustice to be sure, but offer such inspiration and hope and an impetus to roll up one’s sleeves to seek justice. Both books, Stevenson’s Just Mercy and Coates’ Between the World and me, turn even the most addicted fiction reader to nonfiction.
I’ve learned recently that many of us writers send off our nonfiction books with vital information and intriguing worlds to reveal to readers, but in a manner that is often flat and remote. Particularly those of who write nonfiction for children send off books that are deemed by editors and agents as “institutional,” which is not a compliment. The schools and libraries will buy them for the substantive and very real information, and kids will plow through them for book reports. We forget about character and story and offer the information in a “kiss of death” way.
Stevenson and Coates remind us that nonfiction is every bit as page-turning and heart-swelling as any novel. I want to buy their books for everyone and reread them often.