Beautiful books

15 May 2014 | Letter from the Editors, Non-fiction

Brains at work. (Alvin Davison, ‘The Human Body and Health’, 1908) Wikimedia

Brains at work. (Alvin Davison, ‘The Human Body and Health’, 1908) Wikimedia

A precise translation of the word non-fiction doesn’t exist in the Finnish language. Fiction is kaunokirjallisuus (a word invented by two diligent scholars, D.E.D. Europaeus and A. Varelius in mid-19th century for their Swedish-Finnish dictionary) – and a pretty word it is: kauno- is derived from the word kaunis, beautiful, beauteous. Non-fiction translates as tietokirjallisuus: literally, ‘literature of knowledge’.

Recently the status of Finnish non-fiction has been discussed in various media. Authors of non-fiction, as well as a number of readers, have been worried about diminishing sales, a decline in interest among both the general public and publishers, a lack of professional publishers’ editors. In a small-language area producing and profitable publishing ‘literature of knowledge’ is financially hard.

Concern about the withering of civilisation in the civilised state of Finland has also been expressed. Kansansivistys, popular education, was the method with which illiteracy was conquered in the 19th century. Now literacy prevails, but the trend seems to be that people buy and read less books, fiction or non-fiction.

Here in Books from Finland we are delighted by the vast spectrum of non-fiction books published recently. We have featured manyof them – on biography, photography, art, history, design, travel, music, nature, architecture…. Among them is, for example, a book containing the correspondence of a classical music expert and a rock music aficionado in which they exchange enthusiastic, irritated, amused and passionate views of music. A professor of space astronomy takes the reader on a brief tour of the universe, claiming his book is ‘a handbook of everything’ – in just two hundred pages. An artist builds a house that architects wouldn’t: not in the shape of a rectangle, in which we all live, but a leaf. He commits the crime of ornamenting his house, and he is a happy criminal. Are these not books that make you curious? They must!

There are times when highly original new fiction, literary art not dependent on trends, is hard to find (the kind that makes you want to read a novel for the second, perhaps a  third time), but it just is not possible NOT to find an interesting non-fiction book – if you begin looking for them. Besides, 90 per cents of books published by Finnish writers are non-fiction books, so there is plenty to choose from.

It’s not likely that the desire of reading good books is seriously on the wane, though. We may watch a lot of television – Amusing Ourselves to Death, as Neil Postman’s book on TV culture (1985) put it – but even amusement comes in many guises, and certainly doesn’t exclude reading good non-fiction. However, bringing out quality non-fiction for a small readership is admittedly far from being an easy task.

What to do? Think positive? For our part, we can go on featuring enticing samples of Finnish non-fiction, thus spreading the good word…

The author of novels and plays Juha Hurme has a new book Nyljetyt ajatukset (‘Flayed thoughts’) – which could be called philosophical autobiographical fictional non-fiction. It’s about two guys, Köpi (Hurme’s alter ego?) and Aimo, rowing a boat 700 kilometres on the sea from south to north along the west coast of Finland, and it emphasises the infinite significance of reading. Hurme puts the following words into Aimo’s mouth. (Hurme is known as an unashamedly relentless man of letters.)

‘…I’d shout to people: people, read books! Read outside, read inside, read by heart, read aloud, read in sorrow and in joy, for comfort for sorrow and for calming down in elation. Read at home, en route, sideways and crossways…. The more you read, the less you suppose. The less you suppose, the more you know. The more you know, the less you suffer. The less you suffer, the more you’ll have time to read.’

We think this chain of thoughts is irresistibly positive.

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