On the bus this evening, I was reading Aquinas: An Introduction by Brian Davies. I came across a passage which delighted me so much, I knew I had to write a blog post about it. The passage in itself is not remarkable, it's simply an example of something that often delights me.
This is it: So a word used on different occasions can mean or signify something exactly the same or something completely different. Yet, what shall we say of, for instance, the word "love" in the "I love my wife", "I love my job", and "I love chicken soup"? Is a husband's love for his wife the same as his love for his job or his love of chicken soup? Is one's love of one's job normally equivalent to one's love of one's spouse or one's love of certain foods?
The first thing to say is that passages such as this only occur in non-fiction books, and I only find such pleasure in non-fiction books. Non-fiction book appeal to me immeasurably more than works of fiction, mostly for this reason.
What do I love so much about this passage? It's the sense of spaciousness, the sense of leisureliness, the sense of unhurriedly surveying a subject with all the range of human experience at your finger-tips.
This sensation, of course, is created by the inclusion of the term "chicken soup". Comparing a man's love for his wife with his love of chicken soup gives the reader a delicious sense of contrast and range, a sense that everything is within reach, everything is in play.
I prefer non-fiction to fiction because, in novels and short stories, the flow of time continues much as it does in daily life. In non-fiction, time is suspended. The author is addressing you in a timeless, spaceless realm. Even in a short book, the feeling of elbow room, of room to spread yourself, is glorious. Daily life is one long succession of interruptions, deadlines and demands. Pages of text between the covers of a non-fiction book are a blessed sanctuary, a space in which an idea can be unfolded organically, patiently, lovingly.
But, (you may say), you can escape into the refuge of a novel, just as well. Indeed you can-- but what refuge is there really to be found if your protagonist is fleeing a horde of zombies, or locked outside the inn on a stormy night, or surrounded by wolves? Even the most contemplative work of fiction is locked in the present moment, be that "present moment" set in the Neolithic era or the distant future.
Even the most gripping non-fiction narrative, on the other hand, remains detached from the events it describes. The author is writing from above, from outside, from beyond-- from a safe distance. He is there and not there, as are we. It is like taking a stroll in outer space or the depths of the ocean. It's sublime.