24 May 2012

Genetic Cause For An Addiction to Fiction?

I've long thought that I have an addiction to fiction. Between reading lots of prose fiction and writing a little, watching drama & comedy films and TV, day-dreaming as much as I can, and having long, involved stories in my sleep-time dreams, I spend a large proportion of my life absorbed in tales that I or someone else has made up.

Personally, I think that's a good thing. There are lots of respectable ways of saying this - it's part of human nature to want to tell and hear stories; reading or watching fiction about other people's lives helps us develop understanding and compassion; we can learn a lot, educate ourselves, by reading well-researched fiction... I agree with all of those, as well as thinking that, for me at least, losing myself in a good story is an addictive behaviour. It soothes me, cheers me, distracts me; I get edgy if I can't do it most days; when I'm doing it, I lose my sense of time and often my awareness of what's going on around me, or even in my own body - fatigue, thirst, needing to go to the loo - everything fades away except the fictional world, if it's really gripping. Good thing I have cats, then, as they are very effective at bringing me back to the real world with their demands for food, attention, action.

Not surprisingly, I own quite a few books (rough estimate, somewhere around 1500 - 2000) in many genres and for all ages, as well as a lesser but still goodly number of film & TV DVDs (about 500 +/-). Probably my books are about 85% fiction, 15% non-fiction. Very few of my DVDs are documentaries (although those docos are fab - Simon Schama's A History of Britain, George Gittoes' Soundtrack to War, series of Who Do You Think You Are?).

So I'm surprised that six out of the thirteen books I bought at/just before the recent Sydney Writers' Festival, by authors who I planned to hear speaking or ones who I was enthused by after hearing them, were non-fiction. Most of those, though, are memoirs or biographies, so I guess I'm sticking with stories about people, even if some of those stories are about scientific learning as much as about the individuals involved.

I've been hugely enjoying novellist Hilary Mantel's memoir, Giving up the Ghost, while also finding her experiences as a young child very moving, particularly her puzzlement at how and why school does what it does to children - very reminiscent of my own bewilderment as a four year old. At least I had my dad, who told my teacher that if his daughter wanted to read instead of watching TV with the other children, she should be able to, even if she wasn't supposed to have learnt yet. Hilary didn't get into trouble for being an early reader - she found Dick and Jane too boring to be enthused about - but her spontaneous creativity when reciting rote lessons angered the teacher, who asked what was obviously a trick question, "Do you want me to hit you with this ruler?".

But because I wanted to start reading all the books, all at once, soon after starting Giving up the Ghost I leapt into another memoir, by Russian Jewish journalist Masha Gessen.

Masha Gessen's memoir Blood Matters is chock full of information garnered from Gessen's interviews and personal experiences with geneticists, oncologists, genetic counsellors, economists (she consulted a professor of economics about using economic theory to help her decision-making about having prophylactic surgery to prevent breast and/or ovarian cancer), genealogists, DNA analysts, match-makers, rabbis, historians... She is impelled to learn about genetic medicine and inheritable diseases, and breast & ovarian cancer, their treatments and survival rates, when she tests positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation.

Along the way, she hears about the genetic evidence that present-day Jewish men who identify as Cohanim (belonging to the priestly caste of Cohens, descended from Aaron, brother of Moses) do carry a particular Y-chromosome gene that apparently originated with one man whose Y-DNA haplotype shows he lived in the Middle East around 2650 years ago, give or take a few hundred years. She has a harrowing conversation with the sole survivor of a Nazi-run "home" for disabled children (reading the description of what the doctors did to the children at the Spiegelgrund nearly made me throw up). And she meets Miriam, mother of Yehuda, who has a system of hand-written file-cards recording prospective brides for her son; considerations include personality, religiousness, appearance, family occupation, inheritable illnesses.

Some of the stories, whether of people with Huntington's disease (in a chapter justifiably called The Cruellest Disease), or women who have lost all their female relatives over 20 to cancer, are heart-breaking, but I'm still reading, partly because it is fascinating and eye-opening, and also because I haven't yet reached the chapter where Masha decides what she will do - whether to have either or both operations, and what else instead, or as well.

On a much lighter note, I'd like to know if there is a genetic cause of my addiction to reading stories. My father was adopted by a loving, hard-working family who didn't read books. (Later, when I was a teenager, my ever-generous Nana would offer me a "book" to read, meaning Woman's Day or another magazine.) Once he was in a position to buy books, and stay up late reading them, my dad did both, sometimes to excess. In adulthood, he met his birth mother, who turned out to also have a staying-up-late-reading habit. My sister and I had little chance of avoiding this inheritance, if it does have a genetic origin, as our mother too was an inveterate book-buyer and would often be caught up in a good story and lose all sense of time while reading.


My darling ma, reading, with cats

1 comment:

Sheep Rustler said...

Lovely post! I am definitely addicted to reading, but I would say that about 1/3 of what I read is non-fiction. And I definitely think I inherited that from my dad, who read voraciously all his life. And Graham comes from a family of avid readers too, thank goodness, so our kids are in good genetic company in that respect, at least!