I look forward to Volume II

Yesterday I finished reading Almost Home: My Life Story Volume I, the story of Damien Echols written in his own words. Echols is a member of the so-called West Memphis 3, sentenced for the killing of three small children, a crime which the evidence — or lack thereof — suggests they did not commit. Echols is the sole member on death row.

This is not a great book. Echols isn’t a great writer. It’s almost certainly self-serving. It doesn’t shed any insight on the case. It doesn’t even seem to have been thoroughly checked for spelling errors.

Here’s what it is, though: if you’re of the same opinion that I am — that the WM3 is wrongly imprisoned — then this book is a heartbreaking look at what happens when a teenager, a foolish awkward uneducated kid, is ripped out of his own life and thrown into limbo. What he writes, the events he talks about…it’s clear that his life stopped in 1993. Outside of the trial the only dramatic things that happened to him happened in high school. It’s all teenager drama. He’s roughly the same age as me, and all those things I got to do — graduate from high school with my friends, go to college, move away, get a job, get married, buy a home…to grow up, basically — he didn’t get to do.

It’s a credit to him that he discovered zen while on death row, but it’s just crushing to think of this shame — the undeserved ruination of a good part of three lives — compounded on the original tragedy: the murder of three little boys those 16 years ago. If I thought there was an afterlife, I would worry about how uneasily those boys must sleep, knowing their killer is still out there.

Why I don't have favourite books

Do you have a favourite book?

I don’t think I do. I have favourite films. I have favourite songs. But I don’t have favourite books.

That’s not to say there aren’t tons of great books that I was really in love with. I just wouldn’t describe them as favourites. I’m not sure exactly how I define that word, or how my definition might differ from the standard interpretation, but I would loosely describe it this way: a favourite is something I will go back to again and again. I have watched the 13 films referenced in the above link countless times, just as I’ve listened to the songs in the other link so many times I have them all memorized down to the quarter note. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve read any book twice.

So why is that? Well, I think I’m looking for something different in books than I get from films or music. I want to be challenged, I want to learn something, I want to have my mind changed. I suppose this is why I also don’t have a ‘favourite’ documentary, even though I usually prefer them to feature films. I expect from a documentary the same thing I expect from a book: to get my brain going.

Maybe that’s the difference. It’s hard to label something a ‘favourite’ when it might push me, challenge me, make me work. None of my favourite movies or music qualify as terribly difficult or avant-garde, but they all impressed me with their artistry or nuance (yes, even Hoosiers) while still being entertaining. A great book or documentary will teach me something, or disturb me, or change my mind about something…but none of those impacts will make me want to go back to it. The moment is passed, the effect has been felt.

But that documentary vs. feature film distinction tells me something about my books: that I prefer non-fiction to fiction. Truth be told, I buy and read much more non-fiction than fiction; were I to consume as many novels as I do films or albums I would almost certainly have a list of favourite books, but as it is the books I remember having a real impact on me were all non-fiction. Much as I distinctly remember them, I can’t say I feel the need to read any of them again.

What I do crave, and what I’ve missed recently when reading A Fine Balance, enjoyable as it was, is the engagement I get from non-fiction books. Reading a book the likes of The Coming Of The Third Reich or The Shock Doctrine makes my mind race about in all directions, to the point where I have to re-read paragraphs because I’ve wandered off on this tangent or that, formulating questions or testing hypotheses. I don’t get that same engagement from fiction — which is often a testament to the writer’s pacing or narrative skill, but also reflects the nature of fiction. It’s a story, not a study.

When I finished the MBA last year, I figured that my brain was starved for fiction after reading textbooks for so many months, but it turns out I’m still hungry for non-fiction. I’m easing back into it with Almost Home by Damien Echols (the member of the West Memphis 3 on death row), and plan to read Dave Cullen‘s Columbine (which I blogged about last week) next. After that I may take up Niall Ferguson‘s The Ascent Of Money or The Age Of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby. Or I may finally pick up Don Tapscott‘s Wikinomics or resume my study of the buildup to WWII with The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s by Piers Brendon. All of those appeal to me more than the copies of Absalom, Absalom or American Pastoral sitting on my shelf.

For now, anyway.