Free From The Page

by Gurpreet Sihat

I have, for the past year or so, been actively avoiding writing anything to do with books.

Despite the ever-growing pile of fiction on my bedside table – a pile, I should add, that is filled with titles I pre-ordered and which make me want to lock myself away for months on end to devour them all – all I’ve been reading is non-fiction. 

Me.

The girl who never used to understand why anyone would want to waste their time reading books about war and illness, grief and politics, when our everyday lives are filled with such stories. The girl who didn’t understand why you would sacrifice the chance to read about a glorious villain, tiptoeing a tightrope that (depending on which way they would fall) would determine whether their road would lead to redemption or total anarchy. The girl who hates crying at books.

Still, I’m the one sitting here, day after day, picking one non-fiction book after the other. And you know what? I’m encouraging you to add some to your collection too. 

Here are my top five reasons to read non-fiction:

1. EVERYONE HAS A REASON

For better or worse, everyone has a reason to act the way they do. It’s true of fiction (remember those badass villains I mentioned earlier), but it’s also true of non-fiction. Take Cesare Borgia, for example. I’m currently reading The Borgias by Paul Strathern, and if there’s one thing I’ve taken away from it, it’s that Cesare Borgia is a product of his environment. A Spaniard in Italy, in a time where fingers were easily pointed at the ‘other’; desperate to seek approval from his father, only to be constantly pushed aside for his younger brother; humiliated at his sister’s wedding; pushed into a friendship with a boy who, regardless of Cesare being legitimised, saw him as nothing but a bastard son who didn’t deserve to be treated as well as he was; held prisoner by the French in his teens; his closeness with his family leading to rumours if incest. It’s his backstory that really fascinates me. A backstory we really wouldn’t have had the chance to explore in a fiction book. He would have been painted as a charming villain, and that would have been that. 

2. LESSONS CAN BE LEARNED… THE EASY WAY

Everyone always says we ought to learn from each other’s mistakes and each other’s experiences, but if no one around us goes through the same scenarios as us, how are we meant to learn from them? Non-fiction is the answer. It’s rooted in our reality, centred around real people who have real problems, and because of that, we can learn how to shape our own future. It’s educational, even when it’s not. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Michelle Obama’s Becoming. While some chapters were perfection wrapped in a bow, others bored me. The reason? I couldn’t relate to them. I couldn’t find my way in. But those perfect chapters taught me a lot. She wrote about how her guidance counsellor told her she wasn’t Princeton material. Immediately, I was taken back to my sixth form days, listening to teachers laughing and promising me I wasn’t going to make it into any of the universities I had chosen. Just because they were in a position of authority, it didn’t make them right. I got into my top choice university. Michelle Obama got into Princeton. No one’s status in life qualifies them to dismiss you. It doesn’t make them right, either. 

3. SHAPING OPINIONS ABOUT THE REAL WORLD

I’m not great when it comes to maths and accounting. I can’t calculate interest to save my life, I suck at percentages and taxes? Really, that’s someone else’s job to figure out. Because I never understood anything mathematical, I never had an opinion on it. Until now. In 1426, Giovanni de’ Medici influenced the Signoria (the governing body of Florence) to replace their poll tax – which was a fixed tax placed on every adult in the city regardless of their income and resources – with a property tax – which calculated each individual’s properties and income and had them pay a tax that matched. This lifted the burden from the poorer classes and made it more difficult for the rich to evade paying their share. Sadly, it didn’t last, but through The Medici by Paul Strathern, and the research I felt comfortable doing afterwards, I learned all about taxation (the main types of tax, at least… there are over a hundred different types of tax in the UK alone, after all) and was able to form my own, informed, opinion. It’s safe to say I’m on the side of the Medici – champions of the people!

4. FALL IN LOVE WITHOUT CONFINMENT

I recently finished Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. I started it back in January – first as a buddy read with my sisters, and then (after they got bored) by myself – and it took a gruelling six months to get through. Surprisingly, though difficult and a bit of a slog in places, I really enjoyed it. I could, at the beginning, easily split the artists included into three categories – those I hadn’t heard of, those I cared little for, and those I absolutely adored. Each chapter forced me to reconsider each artist. By the end, I found a new love for the chaos of Luca Signorelli’s paintings (who fell into category two at the beginning) and I had discovered a new painter, Domenico Beccafumi, whose darkness (especially in The Annunciation and The Fall of the Rebel Angels) had my nose pressed into the book so I could get a better look. I even learned that one of my favourite pieces in the V&A’s Cast Courts, a young woman embracing a kneeling older one, is Luca della Robbia’s The Visitation, a depiction of the Virgin Mary and St. Elizabeth, both pregnant, one with Christ and the other with St. John the Baptist. How glorious it is to fall in love while reading and not be confined to the pages of a book.

5. NON-FICTION CAN ACTUALLY BE CRAZIER THAN FICTION

The stories have to come from somewhere, I suppose. Vasari’s Lives of the Artists actually came up with two of my favourite “What the Hell?” stories of the year. The first was in a chapter on Fra Filippo Lippi. Despite being a Carmelite Priest, Lippi was rather a promiscuous fella who, on one occasion, climbed out of the Medici Palazzo’s window in order to go on a week-long sex-capade. He also ran away with a nun (who he refused to marry) and was poisoned. It’s speculated that his murderers were a group of women he was having an affair with. The second was the chapter on Andrea del Castagno and Domenico Veneziano. According to Vasari, the former was so envious of Veneziano that he befriended him and then killed him, faking his grief when he was told of the artist’s untimely death. How do we know that Castagno murdered Veneziano? He confessed on his deathbed. What’s crazier than this? Veneziano died four years after Castagno… I feel a conspiracy theory coming on. 

Ever since we met, I’ve been teasing Devon Barnett about her taste in books. Where I carry around a book of three-hundred pages, she carries around thousand-page tomes on the socio-political landscape in India, identity politics, and a rather clever number called Weapons of Math Destruction (which turned out to be about data and democracy, I believe). It was Devon who encouraged me to pick up my first book on the Medici. She encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone, to pull on a new thread – one that separated into a thousand colourful strands that I began eager to grab hold of. For my birthday, last week, she sent me the books in my feature image: The Rival Queens by Nancy Goldstone, following the relationship between Catherine de’ Medici and her daughter, Margot, and The Bookseller of Florence by Ross King, the story of Vespasiano da Bisticci, who produced and sold hundreds of books to popes, kings and princes across Europe, including Cosimo de’ Medici, himself.

Devon, my non-fiction guardian, know that every time a non-fiction book influences something in my writing, it’s your fault, and damn am I grateful. 

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