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August 9, 2010

When I’m deciding what to read next, my first impulse is to reach for something from the fiction shelf. I love made-up stories, where happily-ever-after happens and where justice is served. In other words, I depend on the writer to bring order to a disorderly world. This summer I’m doing something a little different. I’m reading non-fiction.

I began with Ben Bradlee’s A Good Life, moved on to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel, and have just started Edmund Morris’s biography of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex.

The first two were thoroughly enjoyable reads and the third promises to be another. Why? Because of the main characters. All three were strong personalities with strong beliefs. They shared a willingness to take risks when it would have been easier to play it safe. Each of their lives was shaped by the environment or culture into which they were born and their accomplishments resulted from either making the most of a good situation or fighting to correct an unacceptable one.

In other words, I enjoy reading about real people for the same reasons I enjoy reading about my favorite fictional characters: They take charge and make things happen. Sometimes they make bad choices. When they do, no one rescues them; they have to live with the results of their actions or find a way out of their self-created dilemmas. Sometimes they get help or advice from a wise friend. However, being human, as often as not, they refuse the help/ignore the advice and stumble along down multiple wrong roads before they find the right one.

As a writer of fiction, I ask readers to go along with me on a journey into an imaginary world, populated with people that I’ve made up. To make that world and those people believable, I have to obey certain rules and, if I deviate from the rules, it’s my job to make the deviation plausible. On the other hand, it’s good to remember that sometimes unbelievable things happen and that human beings are capable of seemingly super-human acts. That’s the lesson I’ve learned from my summer of non-fiction: there’s nothing so strange that it’s never happened in real life. Some real life heroes have overcome obstacles that even the most diabolical fiction writer would hesitate to place before his made-up hero.

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