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Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex

And while I’m plugging good works by my friends… 

When I read nonfiction these days, it’s usually because the topic is something about which I badly want to know, or because it’s something I’m professionally obligated to read; rarely do I read it for the beauty of the writing itself; for that, I usually divert immediately to fiction.

It was therefore a surprise and a delight to read Pagan Kennedy‘s forthcoming book, The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories.

(While I normally shy away from name-dropping, I think in this case I have to do a bit of it for full disclosure: I knew Pagan way-back-when, a quarter-century ago. So I’m not a completely unbiased reader. )

I loved it.

When I received the book I took it on a walk along our local bike path. To put things in context, understand that I don’t usually take walks longer than a mile or so, and that I almost never try to read at the same time, because I figure I’ll break a bone that way.

I walked for five miles, and I read 90 pages.

Unlike fiction, nonfiction inevitably raises the fascinating question of the writer’s influence on, or interaction with, the facts. In recent years we have seen some overblown scandals about the veracity of memoirs that have led, in my opinion, to some excruciatingly dull debates about “truth” and “fiction.” Normally I would leave such matters entirely alone out of sheer boredom, but Pagan won’t let me do that, because she is careful to assert that she does not fabricate any detail — does not, in other words, pull a Truman Capote. This is an important assertion, because the stories Pagan tells are wild, of the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction variety; so by certifying that every allegation was researched, she makes the stories seem weirder still.

At the same time, there’s no question that Pagan acknowledges, even claims, interaction with her subject matter. She notes that three of her interviewees were awarded substantial grants (including two MacArthurs) following the publication of her articles about them, and in one case says flatly that it was a result of the article.

But more than this, it raises the question of the extent to which one can be truly creative when using nothing but the truth. The answer is: Very creative indeed.  I lost track of the many gorgeous sentences, the sentences that must have taken hours.  It is, in many places, like reading poetry.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.  Go out and read it.

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