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July 7, 2011

Staff Picks: Stranger to Fiction

By: Jack @ 1:10 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

I read something in the industry newsletter Shelf Awareness recently that took me aback. It was from an interview Philip Roth did with Jan Dalley of the Financial Times.
The conversation I’d longed to have with him since I first read him many decades ago, a conversation about fiction itself, died an early death.

“I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did.”

How so?

“I don’t know. I wised up ... ”

And with those three words he gave me a long look from those fierce eyes and then a significant glance at my notebook, as if to say: that’s what I want you to write down.

It was a remarkable quote from a man who not only writes fiction, but who has won pretty much every award there is in the field. In fact, the reason for the interview from which that was taken was that he won this year's Man Booker International Prize, which is awarded for international achievement in fiction.

But the more I have thought about it, the more it makes sense to me. We all read because it provides context, whether it's to a problem we're trying to solve at work or to the larger life we're living outside it. And I have largely left fiction, as well. As I get older, the psychological and emotional context that fiction provides doesn't seem as urgent to me as the larger narratives of history. Whereas I once enjoyed a good page-turning, I-don't-want-it-to-end novel, I am much more likely to dive into a good piece of non-fiction these days, the history and biography categories Roth mentions being at the top of the list.

It is this tendency that brought me to The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World. The book's author is Daniel Yergin, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his previous book, The Prize. That book was about the "panoramic history" of energy, and The Quest continues that story.

This is a book about the energy world in which we depend so completely—how it came to be the way it is, how it works, the risks and challenges it portends, and how different it might be in the future. It explores how energy is constantly being reshaped by the interplay of technology and markets, by the bounty and forces of nature, and by politics and public opinion. It is the story of a quest—the quest for the energy on which society so completely relies, for the position and rewards that it can accrue to individuals and companies and nations, and for the security it requires. It is about our future way of life. It is also about the quest for power in the modern world.
What is remarkable about the book is that Yergin tells stories that, at least for me, capture the immediacy of the headlines while at the same time revealing the deeper narrative involving all the behind-the-scenes personalities and maneuvering. From The Caspian Sea to Nigeria, Venezuela to the Persian Gulf (with a healthy dose of China featured) The Quest is 700+ pages of fascinating stories and the latest reason I've too become a stranger to fiction. I am sure you'll hear the same from other reviewers as we near the book's release in September.