Non-fiction for the cold, hard facts, fiction for flights of fancy. One grounds you while the other sets you spinning. Most of the time, maybe, but my experience this week perfectly inverts that paradigm.
I’ve been reading a brand-new book from Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris, who is best known as the filmmaker behind such projects as The Thin Blue Line (which exonerated an alleged cop-killer serving life in a Texas prison) and The Fog of War (an extended interview with former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, architect of the Vietnam War). He is also a lifelong student of philosophy; while in the graduate program at Princeton University, he studied under Thomas Kuhn, author of the legendary The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a book opposed to the existence of a stable, consistent reality outside the human mind. Morris on the other hand is an inveterate believer in fundamental external verities, and in the early ‘70s a philosophical argument between the two men grew so heated that Kuhn flung a glass ashtray at his pupil’s head. The Ashtray is Morris’s long-simmering return of serve, a systematic takedown of Kuhnian relativism that also builds a case for what we might call truth, justice, and the American way. It’s an investigative illustrated memoir, whip-smart and often as funny as hell, that lets Morris explain what he’s spent his whole career doing, searching for and telling stories about absolute actuality. He makes an excellent case that it’s out there, but simply raising the subject raises questions.
I had even more questions after finishing Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli. It’s a sliver of a book comprising fewer than a hundred pages, but it contains an encyclopedia’s worth of ideas. The first couple of chapters lay out the simple elegance of Einstein’s theories and the more convoluted concepts behind quantum mechanics, doing so in ways that may be familiar to anyone who’s dabbled with these matters before. Things begin to get more interesting as Rovelli examines the ways in which these models contradict each other. Even as the image of the cosmos he’s drawing grows more clear, he reveals vast territories of unexplored ignorance—he and his cohorts are learning every day how much more they don’t know. It’s a pleasure to get lost in the expanding universe depicted by this scientist with an artist’s sensibility, but it may also be disorienting. It’s one thing to follow along as he links time, heat, and probability, but when he reminds us that we ourselves consist of ephemeral “quanta and particles,” the same stuff that composes the “great jigsaw puzzle of space,” and starts to ponder how those infinitesimal bits give us “that sense of individual existence and unique selfhood to which we can all testify,” doubts creep in. They did for me, anyway. I started to wonder not only what I know but how I know that I know anything at all. Who knows what’s real? When I think I’m selling books I might really be passing out assists during the NBA Finals, or in a cathedral listening to a chorus of clown contraltos, or being towed along by a redheaded architectural historian on a tour from the Gateway Arch to Grant’s Tomb. Improbable, yes, but not impossible. I was adrift.
When beset by reading-induced ontological confusion, there is only one true refuge: more books. As the writer Anatole Broyard said about himself and his circle of literary friends, “Books gave us balance–the young are so unbalanced that anything can make them fall. Books steadied us; it was as if we carried a heavy bag of them in each hand and they kept us level. They gave us gravity.“ Since non-fiction had befuddled me, I needed the ballast that only fiction could provide. And the best kind of fiction in such circumstances is, ironically enough, the mystery novel. The genre deals with crime and chaos, but also with the methodical pursuit of order. However flawed a literary detective might be in his or her personal life, you can count on them uncovering all the answers in the end, which is why books about murder can be the most comforting reading there is.
Thus made I haste to the appropriate shelves of Island Books, where I found the oh-so-satisfying stories of John Straley. His ongoing Cecil Younger Investigations star a sometimes-sober resident of Sitka, Alaska and touch upon oil company conspiracies, Tlingit mythology, and cruise ship culture, among many other topics. The first title in the sequence is The Woman Who Married a Bear, and the seventh, Baby’s First Felony, will appear early next month. To celebrate its release, the entire series has been graced with new cover art and a very attractive entry price, so I picked the perfect moment to treat my existential crisis with Straley’s Shamus Award-winning work.
Just down the row lay the Lane Winslow novels by Iona Whishaw. These historical mysteries are set in the late 1940s in a beautiful lakeside village deep in the British Columbia interior, and their heroine is loosely based on the author’s mother, a spirited and educated woman who traveled the world and engaged in espionage during World War II. Starting with A Killer in King’s Cove and continuing through It Begins in Betrayal, this is a series that’s guaranteed to please fans of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs or Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope. A fifth installment is due in the fall in case I relapse into an untethered mental state.
Most people will thoroughly enjoy these books without first risking their sanity, but I’m glad I came to them after my metaphysical flight. Not only did they restore me to myself, they brought me home to the Northwest. Like Dorothy in Oz, it took me a while to figure out that I had my return ticket with me all along. Now that I know the trick to getting back, I’m already planning another journey. Why do we remember the past and not the future? Does time exist in us or do we exist in time? Carlo Rovelli’s follow-up The Order of Time will soon reveal the answers to me, if it hasn’t already done so in some universe or another. I’ll try to send another postcard from wherever, whenever I wind up.
James Crossley is a bookseller and blogger at Island Books on Mercer Island. He does not intend this piece to serve as a reminder that pot is legal in Washington state, though he is aware that some readers might take it that way.