Much ado about non-fiction

I don’t profess to be a bookworm, although I do admit that I’m an avid reader. Yet I’ve grown pretty tired of novels and fiction in general, ever since that fire in me died and went extinct ever since I tried reading James Joyce about three years ago. Most of these days, I try to ignite that flame but it just dies after an occasional enjoyable read once in a while.

It’s quite a different story however with non-fiction. I am a fan of The Economist and I devour each and every edition I get weekly. I proudly subscribe to The Guardian, Al-Jazeera and BBC (notice the penchant for British publications?) on my phone. And the only books that I’ve devoured so far in the past months and years are largely political science or South-East Asian history books papered by some obscure professors from some obscure faculty of some eminent university, and throw in some books on Western philosophy and the construction of social reality. 

Yes, I know, I’m an incredibly boring person.

There’s something incredibly alluring and exhilarating about non-fiction. The kind of hard-boiled knowledge and argumentation that packs each and every sentence, the assertions, the opinions, the jibes and sarcasm and satire.

And then you also have the more interactive aspect of being forced to assume the role of a skeptic when reading.

That’s especially so with the book I’m reading now: The Great Convergence, by Kishore Mahbubani. He is the former Singaporean ambassador to the UN and currently serving as the dean of the LKY School of Public Policy. As a friend once remarked to me, he’s the kind of guy who would be the rhetoric-filled mouthpiece of a “benign authoritarian regime” like Singapore. 

I won’t say it’s entirely rhetoric-filled, neither are his arguments merely “a mouthpiece”. There’s pretty strong logical reasoning behind his arguments and justifications as well. Very enlightening, educational, if not also enjoyable stuff, especially his other essays that I chanced upon in the past. He takes on this very rare “Asian” perspectives on things that we always see through “Western-lenses”. 

Then again, it’s always helpful to read his stuff with a pinch of salt, for all that frequent hyper-critical, anti-West, pro-Asian values, Machiavelli-is-the-way kind of posturing that you get (especially in this book, which is about globalisation and politics, by the way). You get this general “propaganda-ish” feeling after a while, as another friend commented, as if he’s actually being an apologist for the controversial stance of the Singaporean government on many issues that the government has been lambasted for.

In the process, you get drawn subconsciously into evaluating every argument the author makes (whether it’s qualified? whether it makes sense?); every piece of evidence the author throws out, (whether other contrary evidence been omitted, because it’s an unbelievably spotless wealth of evidence); every assertion the author pushes (why he is motivated to make such an assertion?); every tone or stance the author adopts (where does his agenda lie?).

And that’s the warm, fuzzy feeling of non-fiction! The more polemic, the more assertive the arguments, the more enjoyable it gets. Sometimes it’s the sharp and sardonic writing style, other times it’s that pseudo-detective work. It’s that kind of feeling that once you start reading non-fiction materials, you’ll never stop. It just grabs you, sucks you in forever and crowds out whatever cute little fiction novels by Hemingway and Kundera that you used to worship.

And yes, again, the fact that I genuinely enjoy these books makes me, as I asserted earlier, an incredibly boring person. 

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