When I try to explain to friends and family why I prefer to read nonfiction I usually tell them it is because the best stories are the ones that are true. Yes, making things up and presenting them in a way that is creative, entertaining, eloquent, and even beautiful takes skill and talent. I’m not arguing against fiction in general, I will certainly concede that there are wonderful works of fiction. There is definitely something appealing about getting lost in a made up world. However, it is my personal experience that I find myself more compelled and moved by stories that I know are real.
I’m of the opinion that what happens in real life can be so fascinating that you can be transported completely into another time and place within this world rather than the Middle Earths or Panems of fiction. We see the world from a point of view that is shaped and focused by our own experience, knowledge and understanding about the way that things work. But the scope of my world is narrow. There are a lot of things in this world that I know absolutely nothing about. In a lot of instances, this is because I have had a very comfortable life. I want to understand the rest of the world, but can you ever really understand something that you haven’t experienced yourself?
I ask this most rhetorical of questions because I recently finished reading Ted Conover’s 2000 book about the New York State prison system Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. Conover is the kind of writer that I think anyone who has ever dreamed about writing nonfiction thinks that they would love to be, until you realize exactly what he goes through to get his story. Combining anthropology with nonfiction writing Conover has made a career out of becoming his subject. Two years ago I read his first book, Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails With America’s Hoboes, for which he became a hobo and rode around the country in the cars of freight trains. For Newjack, he went through training to become a prison guard and spent a year working in New York’s Sing Sing prison. Talk about being transported into a completely different world, within our world.
I couldn’t tell you the first thing about what the inside of a prison is like, but Conover can. He created a completely different life to infiltrate Sing Sing and become a part of the prison. I don’t think I’ve ever read another writer’s work that so successfully opened a door to give readers a look inside a type of life that many of us will never even come close to understanding. The drama of Newjack is entirely wrapped up in the fact that it really happened. Conover isn’t just retelling stories; he’s telling his own story wrapped up into his subject. You can feel his fear, his stress, his exhaustion, his amusement, his appreciation for the kindness of others, and his strong desire to try to understand.
A book like Newjack illustrates my opinion that the best stories are the ones that are true. Not only did it increase my knowledge and understanding about a place, a system, and people that I would never on my own come into contact with, but it also tapped into the rawness of the human experience. The darkside of reality seethes through Newjack. It pushes you forward, and combined with the knowledge that it all really happened it opens up a world within the world. It isn’t really a fun read, but I think it is a necessary read. I recommend Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, and am looking forward to checking out Conover’s other work.