Have you ever read a novel and felt as if you’ve left your surroundings for a new world? This is one of the ways I use to decide if a book’s made a major impact on me. The process by which this happens isn’t simple, not a matter of exciting action or steamy love scenes. A combination of writing style and language, plot, compelling characters, and an unfathomable mixture of interesting ideas old and new are some of the qualities that go into what’s called “willing suspension of disbelief.” In essence, although I know what I’m reading is imaginary, I react as though it’s real. And it changes me in ways I haven’t measured, provides knowledge, even, dare I claim?, wisdom.
Some of the books that have done that for me are Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities, Hunger Games, Main Street, Caramelo, Doomsday Book, Revolutionary Road, and The Things They Carried. These probably aren’t your choices, but you might have your own favorites.
Or you might not read fiction. I know people who refuse to on the grounds that it’s not real, not for serious-minded people, it’s fluff. Stop and think a minute though: fiction is more truthful than nonfiction because it allows us entry into other people’s minds and emotions. It presents thoughts in action and practice. It’s the closest thing we have to eternal life since every eon, each individual can be represented.
As usual with slap-your-face obvious information, this perspective, known for centuries to readers and writers, now is being substantiated through various studies. Yes, reading fiction stimulates and strengthens certain areas in your brain. Yes, reading changes behavior. Changes can be positive, assisting you to function and relate better in the world. Or they can be negative, encouraging aggression and cruelty, setting you and those around you up for a world of trouble.
I began thinking more about the impact of fiction on real life when I read a novel about a poet and a group of immigrants in Sweden. The Shadow Girls, by Henning Mankell, starts off comedic with the protagonist Jesper being urged to write a thriller by his money-hungry publisher, escalates until nearly everyone, including the hero’s stock broker and his 90-year-old mother who staffs a phone sex service, is trying his hand at a manuscript. Then Jesper accidently meets three young women, immigrants from Iran, Russia and Africa (two of them undocumented), whose lives intrigue him. He becomes determined to give their stories a voice. They want to tell their own tales, thank you very much, and through a mélange of narrative, writings from their classes, and inner dialogue, we learn a little of the terrible and distinctive circumstances of each, along with their dreams for a future. (Mankell is best known for his Kurt Wallender police mysteries.)
I started grasping emotionally how the state of homelessness, powerlessness, nonpersonhood affects the girls in the novel, giving me a better perspective on my small efforts to support immigration reform here in the US. And I wished everyone on all sides of the immigration debate would open themselves to the world in the book’s pages, because in some small sense, you are what you read.
A strong argument against dystopian, spy, and war novels, littered with bodies like abandoned soft drink cans, and for thoughtful, positive, compassionate novels with happy endings.