It’s curious that reality is based on fiction, right? I mean, when was it decided that fiction came first and everything that wasn’t completely made up would lump secondarily into the category of non-fiction? Aslan at the head of the line, followed by the lives of African plains lions.
Still, it tells us a thing or two about how we view the world. Surely, gaggles of librarians convened in a back office of the New York Public Library some rainy Wednesday, glasses perched on their crooked Roman noses, and unanimously agreed: “Yes, non-fiction shall be all things that we haven’t already decided are fiction.” By which they meant, the things that people actually want to read.
Some generations after this impromptu legislature, someone would unwittingly start a campaign for reality with five simple words: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” And while “strange” is not always synonymous with good, it tends to make an enticing read. Thus, authors pored over manuscripts about dead men and people who were shot in odd places, conjuring saucy narratives that might be revered as counter-cultural—that is, non-fiction.
And so, as we now course through the shelves of our 21st-century libraries, we notice a distinct segregation: fiction and non-fiction. If the chronology of things had happened much differently, we might think imagination to be the lesser citizen in the world of books, but it isn’t. We hardly even think about what the genres mean anymore; we just know that they are different.
Most of us picture the back-room librarian meetings still in full vigor, debates firing at a squeakish pitch with men in brown cardigans and ladies in frumpy dresses. It is bizarrely British, reminiscent of an episode of Miss Marple.
Perhaps, then, more than spending any time with reality and innovation, we relish the thought of wandering through a library and feeling like we’re part of a 19th century English household, replete with books, dusty shelves, and reserved barons retreating behind uneven glasses and cherry wood desks.
The truth about this fiction is: we’d rather have the reality that we don’t.