Thursday, July 29, 2010

In Praise of Fiction

Zoe Heller's The Believers tells the story of a family full of people I wouldn't normally care to know.

Audrey Litvinoff, the woman who has just lost her husband, is insufferable and uses her words like armor. Rosa Litvinoff is too stupid to know the limits of her intelligence. Karla, insecure and eager to please though she is, I found too annoying to even merit sympathy. Still, it's one of the my favorite books recently, because I would never go out of my way to hang out with these characters. I walked in their footsteps, heard their thoughts, and understood how they became the way they were. And because I hung out with them, I can't hate them. Ignorance allows for the strait-jacket we put people in, never letting them roam beyond the corners of our impressions of them, sometimes not even allowing for the thought that there could be evidence to the contrary. But getting to know someone confronts one directly with their individuality. You can't hate someone you know.

In a world where people keep to their respective corners of the proverbial high school cafeteria, literature is more important than ever in showing how the other half lives. Without literature, we would never know who that girl was across the hall that lives in that neighborhood you've never heard of, from that country we didn't even know existed. We would regard the strangeness of our world, surround it without our own myths, and never be humbled into questioning our own wisdom.

Elif Shafak makes this point so well in the TED talk. Watch.

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