Is There Such a Thing as Nonfiction? Or Am I just too Darned Picky?

I'll return to my question about democracy and biology a bit later but for now I'm going to describe one of the many ways that I make Mrs Pliny and my friends crazy (they love and /or like me anyway...). It's on the subject of books. I 'm an obsessive bibliophile. Our home is overrun with books of all kinds. It makes Mrs Pliny crazy that I can never seem to find the butter in the fridge but if I am passing one of the shelves, I will often stop and ask a question like, "Where's our copy of Geek Love?" I have an internal Pliny decimal system and often confound my wife when she has a new book to read in her book club by usually pulling it out of some seemingly random corner of the shelves. (Yes, we even have a very extensive section on world religions including most of the sacred texts - right along side of Gilgamesh,... ;)) In addition to the crates of paperbacks that we recycle to the used book stores we have upwards of 3000 volumes in our library. Collected over 40 years. I have been privileged to read every one (the not so privileged ones got recycled to the used bookstore). Some more than once (the benefit of a short memory, I suppose). Making Ade out of lemons, my lifelong insomnia (or need for less sleep) has allowed me to read at least 2 books a week for many years. More if I'm in pulp fiction mode. It's my principle vice. At one time or another at least 30% of the collection has found itself on somebody's banned book list which I think is a good thing.

I don't think of books as revered art objects but as working tools. I collect those that have something interesting to say or teach, not because they have investment value. This being the case there is a habit that I apparently share with Darwin: writing in the margins of my books (not others books as this seems to be a sure way to never get loaned another). Questions, observations, thoughts, errors they are all in there. Some written on the pages and some on note cards or scraps of paper. Some day if the kids ever really want to know their dad, my complete intellectual life's journey is recorded in there somewhere.

Which brings me to the actual point of this post: errors in works of nonfiction. To give an example of the extent of my bibliogeekdom, I have been reading The Third Reich at War by Richard Evans. Evans is well regarded as the author of a three volume series on the rise and fall of the Nazis. This last book covers the war years. I was reading along nicely when on page 119, the balloon was burst. Evans mentioned the sinking of the German heavy cruiser Blucher (add the 'u' umlaut please) during the Norwegian campaign. True enough except he called it the 'battlecruiser' Blucher which it was not. A few pages later he erred in his description of the relative technical merits of one of Britain's aircraft during the Battle of Britain. Both were enshrined with underlined annotations in my copy less some future reader be misinformed.

It ruined the read for me. It seems a minor thing but for me any time I read a book of nonfiction and find but a single factual error (I am not so unfair as to equate typos with errors of fact) I tend to discount the rest of the book. It happens with alarming frequency. If I can find errors about subjects known to me covered within the text, how sure can I be in the accuracy of the other 'facts' outside my fund of knowledge? It makes me doubt the veracity of the complete text. What is the sum total misdirection in understanding that comes about from the aggregation of all these mistakes? Hard to know, but in books on complex subjects where subtle references mean the difference between knowledge and misunderstanding it makes me wonder. I know it seems a bit excessive but in an age where the seemingly most trivial made-up factoid gets recycled until it becomes canon, is it too much to ask of our authors that they check their facts? It seems sloppy to me and the last thing we need in this information age is more sloppy sources.

Such books (if they are interesting enough to avoid the recycler) are condemned in my collection to that bibliopurgatory shelf where books of dubious accuracy must reside until liberated by some bargain hunter sifting through my estate sale hopefully many years hence...


mac said...

The best read man I ever knew, my Dad, dropped out of school at 14.

It was WWII and he was going off to fight. He made it through most of Basic training before being discovered (we macs are big young 'uns, I am the same size as I was at 13- and I aint small).

He was sent home to ripen for a few years - never again offering his service. "To hell with 'em. They had me but gave me up!"

But I digress....I suppose I thought of him when reading of your library. His was extensive as well. I inheirited it but lost most of it in 2004 in the 3hurricanes that struck my home. BUT, I did read a few, gave a few away. It was not a comeplete loss :-)

As to your point; I try not to sweat the small errors. Instead, I grin a smug little grin and IMAGINE my intellect superior the author....I did write imagine, right ;-)

Stacy said...

I am a book addict as well - but a little different - I like reference books. (Atlas' and such)That's probably why I like the internet so much.

I also can't put a piece of fiction down until I'm finished - so I have to make sure I have to set aside 2 days (approx - no sleep) and get rid of my family when I buy a new book - terrible, I know. "The Stand" about killed me. lol:-)

Michael Lockridge said...

Having written only one book, and that being fiction and not yet published, I do have a tiny bit of experience in the challenge of tracking the many elements in writing something larger than an article.

A non-fiction covering something as large and complicated as World War II would be a tracking nightmare. Checking facts with utmost diligence will still leave some margin for error, especially if the author is the sole individual doing the checking.

Somehow I see one technical error and one error in nomenclature in a book of any real dimension falling into a reasonably narrow margin for error.

Unless your authors are grossly negligent or serving an agenda through propaganda, it might be reasonable to forgive them small errors.

I also like to exercise a degree of forgiveness for perspective. Who is the writer? Where are they from? What is their background and how might it influence how they view the subject?

Of course on matters where a writer displays ignorance or prejudice I will discount their opinion on the particulars. That does not preclude knowledge and expertise in other matters. I would grant that it makes them suspect, and they will require a more careful reading.


Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Ok, Ok - I'm a pain, thanks for the smack down ;)