My mum was an avid reader, and it was she who set a fire under me! By the time I started primary school in Hong Kong where we lived at the time I was already reading. I consumed books at an astonishing rate through my early years, though the only ones that remain a stand-out from that period were Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories. I loved those and their iconic covers.
During my early adult years there was limited time for reading with many other aspects engulfing my life, so book time was spent bouncing from one fiction novel to another. I had no time, nor inclination for non-fiction. This genre raised the spectre of dry, dusty, deadly dull tomes hiding away in dark corners of bookshelves.
The awakening came very late in life around 2006. It was sparked by three books that arrived within my sphere in very quick succession. Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey which I bought for $7.95 in a San Francisco bookshop, Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, which was a gift, and Wildwood by Roger Deakin. Each in their own way are breath taking and beautifully written. The quality and scope of writing awoke in me a hunger to hunt down non-fiction books.
Since then, I’ve read dozens and dozens. The standout one is The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf, an astonishing book about Alexander Von Humboldt who was predicting human induced climate change – the first to do so – as far back as 1800 and who’s colourful adventures of exploration all over the world are thrilling to read. Others that left a significant mark were The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd, Prospero’s Cell by Lawrence Durrell, The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller and The Letters of Ted Hughes.
The simple fact is that now I always have a non-fiction book on the go. Basically I have three ‘live’ books that I read during the day. Fiction first thing with a cup of tea, non-fiction in the afternoon and a poetry book. My current trio are Robin Hobb’s The Golden Fool (a fantasy novel ~ I’m nothing if not eclectic and more on that genre in a later blog), Ariel by Andre Maurois, which is about the early life of poet Shelley, and Night Sky with Exit Wounds, an astonishing debut poetry collection by Ocean Vuong.
The beauty about reading non-fiction is that it invariably opens up a trail. In the case of Von Humboldt I went on to track down volumes one and three of his ‘Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America during the years 1799-1804’. Snappy title. Volume 2 remains elusive.
These were published in 1851 and have the inevitable tiny print associated with that era. I started out by referring to such books as dry, dull tomes. These are anything but. This scientist was an astonishing man and though he has fallen away from the limelight these days he was a giant among men. So much so that among the many things named after this Prussian naturalist and geographer are a mountain in Venezuela, a county in California, a bay, a river, a flower, a penguin, an asteroid and, of course, the Sea of Humboldt on the moon! Even Charles Darwin referenced these books in his Voyage of the Beagle.
So, trust me, non-fiction can provide as much drama, excitement and surprising turns as any fiction! Consequently it’s wonderful to see that Liznojan launching a non-fiction book club next month, kicking off with Jemma Wadham’s A Story of Glaciers, Wilderness and Humanity. Strap yourselves in for an interesting ride!
Born in North Wales, poet & writer Paul Mortimer has lived in Tiverton for 13 years. His first poetry collection, Fault Line, was published by Lapwing in 2015, followed by Wind Voices from the same publishing house in 2019. He has appeared at several literary festivals and headlined at a number of poetry events in recent years.