Why Read Fiction?

Erin Kodicek on January 31, 2019
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My colleague Adrian Liang posted an interesting piece this week that predicted book trends for 2019. I was sad, but not surprised, to read what she had to say about fiction: "I remember a friend predicting a few years ago that readers were going to escape more into fiction as the real world grew more divisive, but the opposite has happened—and I think that's a good thing. Readers are engaging in the real world through various nonfiction reads, and that trend will continue [this year]." While this assertion will likely prove to be true, I would argue that it's actually not so great. There are numerous studies that show that reading fiction can actually improve empathy. In a world that does seem to be pickling in vitriol, enhancing our capacity to have compassion for the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of others can bring the temperature down a bit, and ease the discord. Nonfiction can do this too, of course. But there is something uniquely powerful about fiction's ability to put ourselves in other people's shoes, disrupt our preconceived notions, and bridge the gap between ignorance and understanding.

Here are a just handful of books that can help snap a reader out of self absorption, and motivate us to create a kinder world.

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Waiting for Eden by Elliot Ackerman

Elliot Ackerman is a war veteran and a National Book Award finalist, and he has written a short, mesmerizing, and profound novel that I think is even better than his first. Eden was once a warrior, but he is now a wounded vet constrained to a hospital bed, covered in burns and existing on life support. His wife, Mary, cares for their daughter and struggles with the reality of her once-strong husband deteriorating from his injuries. What makes this story different is that it is narrated by Eden’s good friend, who was killed in the war and is waiting to pass from this world. His omniscience is colored by his empathy and understanding for the family, for Eden, and for the very real sacrifices of those who serve. As we watch the present and learn of their past, the book takes on a dreamlike quality that strikes right to the heart and, by doing so, seems all-so-real. This is an illuminating, highly emotional read. Waiting for Eden is an important novel that deserves a wide readership. --Chris Schluep

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Sugar Run by Mesha Maren

Jodi McCarty just can’t catch a break. Fresh out a 18-year stint in prison, for a mysterious crime we learn about as the story unfolds, she is eager to return to her slice of Shangri-La in the Appalachian Mountains. But first she takes a detour that, however well-meaning, ends up threatening to throw her aim of staying on the straight and narrow off course. Mesha Maren packs a lot into Sugar Run, a Southern noir that follows our heroine’s dogged attempts to rebuild her life, efforts that are stymied by things both outside and inside her control (for starters, the woman has woefully terrible taste in romantic partners). Maren writes beautifully and with keen insight, but what makes this debut truly special is her ability to engender compassion in deeply flawed characters; that’s the power of good fiction. --Erin Kodicek

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There There by Tommy Orange

What does it really mean to be an Indian/Native American/American Indian/Native? Orange's vivid debut novel allows a unique cast—ranging from teenagers to elders—to pull this question apart even as they add a modern layer of complexity: They live in the urban landscape of Oakland, California. The thrust of Orange's cross-cut storytelling is not to force his characters onto a strict plot line but to explore the varied ways of being an Indian and, more important, of feeling like an Indian. Fractured families, Oakland itself, and detachment from tradition make an Indian identity seem even more elusive to the younger characters, but it's a feeling that they unknowingly share—and that Orange wants to expose. As an amateur filmmaker says to a teen he's interviewing, "When you hear stories from people like you, you feel less alone." Isolation and longing permeate the page, lifted briefly only as the characters intersect at the Big Oakland Powwow, with chaotic results. If I have any quibble about the book (and it could be a failure of mine, really), it's that there are a few too many characters for me to comfortably hold in my head. But then again, this isn't a comfortable novel, and therein lies its power and purpose. —Adrian Liang

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The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

Based on the real-life experiences of Holocaust survivor Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov, author Heather Morris’s novel is a testament to the human spirit and the power of love to bloom in even the darkest places. And it’s hard to imagine a place darker than the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. In 1942, Lale is rounded up with other Slovakian Jews and sent to Auschwitz. Once there, he is given the job of tätowierer, inking numbers into the arms of frightened prisoners at a sickening rate. One of these prisoners is a young woman named Gita--and in spite of their plight, they fall in love. Lale’s position as the tätowierer gives him privileges but does not shield him from the brutality of the camps. Time and again he risks his life to help his fellow prisoners, and my heart was in my throat at the chances he took for Gita and others. Despite the passing of years and the ever present threat of death, Lale and Gita never stop believing in a future together where they can live as husband and wife. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a beautiful and life-affirming novel. Thinking about it still brings tears to my eyes and warmth to my heart. —Seira Wilson

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Oliver Loving by Stefan Merrill Block

In Oliver Loving, a school shooting compels the denizens of a small Texas town to confront painful (and sometimes ugly) truths, as they try to solve the mystery of why the shooter did what he did. Trouble is, many of the answers are locked inside the mind of one of the victims, Oliver Loving--who is in a coma--and his unrequited love, Rebekkah Sterling, who would just as soon forget. Block does a deft job of capturing the reverberating effects of grief, and the many ways in which it is expressed. You may not always agree with how Loving’s mother, father, and brother deal with the horrible hand their family is dealt, but you understand their actions just the same (and maybe even relate to them). Oliver Loving is a compassionate account of something we see far too often on the news, but never get the full story. And though you’ll need to suspend your disbelief for certain aspects of this narrative, I think it’s much harder to wrap one’s brain around the sorts of real-life tragedies that inspired it. By giving a glimpse inside the mind of both perpetrator and victim, by putting us in their shoes, maybe we can better tease out why such terrible things happen, and take meaningful steps to stop them. --Erin Kodicek


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