Throughout my 16 years of education, I was consistently bad at language classes; both Turkish, called Literature after primary school, and English. I did not read, except for the mandatory books teachers pushed down my throat. The only literary activity I undertook, was poems I scribbled. But I thought of them as a side effect of my romantic episodes, not as writing.
It was towards the end of my college years when my dear friend Ozgur infected me with the literature virus. He lent me two books: The Picture of Dorian Gray and Fathers and Sons. What drew me to them was not the plot or the philosophy behind them, but the creativity of Wilde and the willpower of Turgenev. I was thunderstruck but the spell dissipated quickly. The literature virus roamed the corridors of my mind, but it could not take control. After all, my mind was indoctrinated with math and science for 16 years. I was not going to give up analytical thinking after two novels. But I did one thing different. I started to read. The introvert in me, could not resist the tempting loneliness of reading.
Over the next ten years or so, I read nonfiction. It was more suitable for the mind of a software engineer. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers and As Life Calls Us — a collection of essays by my philosophy professor Ahmet Inam — were the first two books that left an imprint on me. My mind was used to thinking about how a piece of code worked. After these books, it started thinking about how the world worked. I enjoyed the loneliness of reading as I pushed myself through the tomes of Dawkins, Kahneman and Christopher Alexander. I picked up a novel every once in a while, for example after Orhan Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize, or when a friend gifted me the Soul Mountain. But I was not satisfied. “I don’t learn anything from these,” I told myself. “Why should I lose time with made up events while there are so many things to learn about?” I asked. “Worst case I would read memoirs. At least they really happened.” I revolted as I continued to hang out in the psychology, economics, and philosophy aisles of the bookstores.
Meanwhile, I developed an innocuous liking for poems. They felt different than reading. Edip Cansever, Atilla Ilhan, Turgut Uyar spoke to me almost in a different language. I did not know the reason why I liked them. But I knew that because of the same reason, my mind started to occupy itself with the lyrics while listening to music. I understood only a few years ago that the unknown reason was the literature virus, settling into my amygdala.
Then on the night of an extremely depressing day, I put my first prose on paper. I did that for two reasons. First, as an engineer, I could not help to think about how I would create something like the things I was reading. Second, the virus found the crumbs of the poems I wrote back in the day in my amygdala, and cunningly threw them into my cerebral cortex. I hid my words into the book I was reading at that time, a textbook on Ottoman Culture. A month later I came across it, and read my words for the first time. It was cathartic. No, I was not a genius. Now, I know that it was shit. But then, reading it made me re-live the intense emotions I had when writing. I loved it. That was how the virus tricked me into writing.
A few more years went by. I wrote emotionally, and read rationally. I picked more novels than before, but I was adamant on the fact that they did not teach me anything. During these years, I started telling myself that I should share what I was writing but I was busy with the Sapiens, the Moral Tribes and the Red Queen. First I procrastinated, then I forgot, finally I decided the right medium for me to share my words did not exist. I was happily hiding from the world when one day out of the blue, a term popped into my head: masturbative writer. (I have a strong suspicion that this was the virus’s doing too but I did not find an evidence for it. Yet.) What was the point of writing if no one was reading them? Thus I committed myself to sharing what I write sometime in 2016.
Posting what I had already written, felt like going out of home naked. So I put my pen to the paper, or my fingers on the keyboard, to write new things. But there was a problem. What came out was nonfiction. Why was I surprised? After reading nonfiction for such a long time, of course I would not be able to replicate my emotional experiences for the reader. I was patronizing and dull. I kept on and on, lecturing the unlucky readers about philosophical concepts as if I was the God who created them. I wished I would not have written that!
But my resolve to stop being a masturbative writer was strong. So I wrote, edited, rewrote and re-edited without a single readable piece, until I was wondering one of the bookstores of Turkey with Ozgur, the friend who launched the virus on me. We talked about our favorite books. You already know which books I pointed to as he talked about Oblomov, Dostoyevsky, Tanpinar, Erdal Oz… That day I knew what I needed to do. I bought all the books he talked about, stuffed them in my briefcase and brought them over to Seattle. Vigorously, I started reading fiction.
Some weeks after, in the restroom of the Little Odd Fellows Cafe of The Elliot Bay Bookstore, my attention was drawn to the black and white picture of a man wearing a book as a hat (the picture at the beginning of this post). Without knowing this was the last move of the elaborate scheme of the virus, I innocently looked up the visible title of the book and the name of the author. Thus I discovered Marquez, then Llosa and Bolano — yes I learnt about the Latin American Boom, only 50 years later.
So why did I tell you my story? To show you how limiting reading only nonfiction is, to convince you into reading more fiction. You should read fiction not because I am writing fiction. No. You should read fiction because it will give you a unique perspective that is different than that particular sense of improvement we are accustomed to getting from nonfiction. I’m not telling you to stop reading nonfiction. I’m telling you that you should not dismiss fiction, like I did, saying it does not improve you, it does.
Now tell me, if the literature virus did not give you something different in this otherwise nonfiction post. Tell me if it did not pierced your mind, just a little bit.