When I was a kid my mom worked for a public library for a brief time. It was a gorgeous four story, brick building with white letters that adorned the top floor proclaiming, “LIBRARY!”, exclamation point and all.
If you were about five years
old and you walked inside it and turned left, you experienced a wonderland of children’s fiction. There were large plastic picture books, young adult “chapter” books, Archie comics and even some old movies on VHS tapes. They even had computers (which were quite rare for 1990) where you could play reading games or look up books. To top it all off the very back of the place had a large amphitheater style reading room where they hosted special readings of popular books.
I am just young enough to remember spending hours in this section and thinking, “Why could there possible be three more floors to this place? What other books could possibly be important enough to include that wouldn’t be here?
In school I learned the other books had a name: “Non fiction” which I quickly understood was a synonym for “boring.” They didn’t have pictures or funny stories. The covers were bland and the titles used big words that nobody understood. Rumor had it that the inside were nothing but large lists of mindless data about inane topics.
Long story short, I now read about one book a week and those books are almost always from the “non fiction” floors of the public library. This is not because I have become boring. It is quite the opposite. I learned the truth all adults do. Non fiction, or what I call “real life”, is way more entertaining than the stuff of fantasy novels.
Just the other day I read a “non fiction” TIME article about how Mormons insist you only marry Mormons but their young adults are 60% female which leaves a large percentage of them single and childless, which is unfortunate given their faith’s predominance of family values. Let me summarize the article a different way, “A religion that preaches you have to get married and have children doesn’t have enough men around for the women to marry.” You can’t make this up.
I also recently completed a more tragic but true tale about a struggling church who decided to talk more about Jesus and saw their attendance decline dramatically. A woman who left their church told them, “I am glad you are talking more about Jesus but I will come back when you start talking about marriage and parenting again.”
It is not that I am deriding fiction. I have several friends, including my wife, who still read it in excess. Furthermore, I am mindful of all those studies out there (mentioned in non fiction books) that claim people who read fiction all the time are just as intelligent as those who read non fiction all the time.
Yet, even so, the extent to which fiction succeeds lies in how it best mirrors non fiction. Take for example Delores Umbridge in the Harry Potter tales. Voldemort was fine and all but I have never met a Voldemort and kind of don’t think people like him exist. Delores Umbridge is another story. She went to my church growing up and I hated everything about her. She was there to keep me from having fun. Of course, she wasn’t evil. It turns out she had an extremely low self esteem from a childhood of abuse and neglect and she was now compensating for it by barking out orders and trying to exert control over the only people that would respect her, the children. The reality that J.K. Rowling wrote her so well means that Delores Umbridge probably went to J.K. Rowling’s church too.
All that aside, this last week I read the first pop fiction book I have read in quite some time. A friend recommended it, using multiple exclamation marks and I wanted an easy read and an engaging story, one that I might be able to use in a sermon some day. The book was V.E. Schwab’s “Vicious” a short and choppy tale about scientists trying to become super heroes.
It is the stuff of summer movies and prime time dramas and as is now common in the stuff of both Marvel and D.C. there can be no black and white super heroes, only several shades of gray. So it is with “Vicious.” The good guy quickly becomes the bad guy and the bad guy struggles to find anything virtuous in himself. In fact, neither is good nor bad, merely yin and yang, two contrasting forces circling around each other and occasionally butting heads and trading bullet and knife wounds.
Still, “Vicious” works because I have met the characters. They , too, went to my church. There is the self righteous, religious zealot who thinks he is entirely in the right while he persecutes the less honorable or deserving. Then there is the tragic villain whose misdemeanors are quite understandable, coming as they do from an unstable personality caused by decades of pain.
Along the way they are joined by two sisters who have also picked up some super powers. The younger lives in the older’s shadow, wanting to be like her until she realizes how sinister her older sister is. The older struggles with serious identity questions that are somewhat typical of all college aged adults.
I knew about halfway through the book that we weren’t headed towards a happy ending and, without giving too much away, I was right. As is typical with the stuff of super heroes, they circle around each other in ever decreasing velocity until they all crash in the climax and none of them walk away unscathed.
That is the stuff of non fiction as well. Our abilities and personalities circle around each other until we finally crash. It happens in marriage, in family, in friendships and workplaces and, yes, even in churches. What remains is the ending of “Vicious” which leaves the readers with a ghost of guilt whose premonitions insist we try to make it right, dealing with our wounds and hurts while we try to keep from hurting each other again.
And that ghost too, went to my local church as I was growing up. He probably inhabits yours today, as he does your house and your business.
For that reason alone, “Vicious” belongs in both the fiction and non fiction parts of our libraries.
See you all later. I have Brennan Manning’s autobiography to read.