Tuesday, January 13, 2004

I believe that a work of non-fiction should have a point.

That is to say, underlying the facts presented, there is a case being argued. For a moment, let’s consider a biography—say, Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens. It’s a well-done biography. Certainly it’s comprehensive. Underlying all of the details that Ackroyd feels we need to know is an argument: that Dickens, having experienced such poverty and abominable conditions as a child, resolved not to experience such conditions again, and resolved to work to better the lives of those around him. Hiccoughs of life, unexpected difficulties, and wilful straying because of lust & other temptations put aside, Ackroyd offers this lens to help us to understand Dickens’ motivations & actions, his beliefs & his ideals. I enjoy Dickens because Ackroyd makes an argument.

In a book that is not a biography—and hence not constrained largely to follow a life’s pattern from parents to upbringing to adult life to death—an argument is all the more essential. Now, I don’t read a lot of non-fiction intentionally (I seem to fall into books of that ilk, rather than selecting them). One I did read last year, because my friend Yaacov recommended it to me (and I am nothing if not catholic in the face of book recommendations), was Tom Pocklington & Alan Tupper’s No Place to Learn: Why Universities Aren't Working. I disagreed with a lot of it, and got quite irked while I was reading it (not least because the book doesn’t seem to understand the concept of flow, but oh well). I did, however, respect Pocklington & Tupper for engaging with a difficult issue, and for arguing well for their conclusions (however much I may disagree with those conclusions).

What I really do not care for is works of non-fiction whose argument is so weak that, saying it, I don’t really care to find out how the argument works. The book I finished last night, Scott Hahn’s Lord, Have Mercy: The Healing Power of Confession resides squarely in this latter category. It’s entire argument is that confession is good for you. OK, makes sense, fair ’nuff, sure, but… I was given to expect much more from it. And sometimes, just sometimes, the expectations we bring to books make sense and deserve to be part of our critique of the book.

Ignoring for a moment Hahn’s dismissive attitude toward the two non-Roman-Catholics that he cites (Luther & C.S. Lewis), the book is weak. It’s poorly argued, has no sense of cohesion whatsoever—the chapters bleed into one another without making points, or letting one see what point exists in separating the material (save for having chapter divisions every few pages, so as not to lose the attention of people who can concentrate for less time than the average gnat)—and is so full of platitudes as to leave one feeling that one has just finished consuming the most trite bit of cloying cotton candy. The book seems to be a confection designed to attract money from the faithful who buy it, leaving them unfilled.

One might—I did—expect a book about confession to have some sort of survey of the historical development of the RC sacrament of penance. After getting through a saccharine testimonial, Hahn begins such a survey with Adam & Eve (a good place to begin, to be sure)… and then lets it crash and burn, unfinished.

One might expect that such a book have a fairly careful examination of the theology underpinning confession. My advice? Spending more than two pages on that might be of use.

The book has countless other faults. The only other one which I will share is the book’s annoying habit of being trite. Mostly with its subheadings. Consider “Pact House,” “Substitute Teaching,” “Mutual Savings,” “Rite Turns,” and “Un-Bull-Leaving Israelites.” I like a good bit of humour, even in a serious work. No book, though, need resort to such overly clever bits of tripe… err, trite-ness, in an effort to convince the reader to stay with the topic.

Leave the book on the shelf. Go read Augustine’s Confessions. You’ll get the important stuff out of it, too, and at least you might enjoy the read.

I need to learn to remember my Readers’ Bill of Rights right #3: the right not to finish what I start.