For an English teacher, I read remarkably little literature. Starting with graduate school, I became more invested in nonfiction: neuroscience, philosophy, sociology, gender studies, race relations, American history…anything but a story. I wasn’t getting lost in a good book as much as illuminating corners of reality that I must have assumed fiction couldn’t light.
I can’t claim fiction is frivolous though. It’s not like I stopped consuming stories altogether; I just favored different media. When you can get your dose of escape and/or empathy through television and film, why pause (like, a lot) for a book? (The same argument can be made against nonfiction: why bother when there are such effective documentaries, viral videos, and TED talks?) I still don’t have a great answer to the question, probably because it seems pointless to me to pit one form of a story against another. Criticizing television and film for lacking something that only reading can provide ignores just how powerful stories in those forms are. As pure imaginative exercise, perhaps books serve me more completely; I’m more responsible for sustaining the visual experience, more active creatively. Yet, while directors do curate my sensory experience more explicitly, I’m not one to shut off my mind, rhetorical assumptions be damned.
When a story resonates, it resonates. I’m more often moved – physically – by a visual story (though most of that probably comes from the music plucking so ruthlessly at my heart strings). With pieces of fiction, I’ve learned to be moved, primarily, intellectually. I’ve learned to privilege what I think about a book instead of how I feel. (Some of this is surely grounded in gender socialization.) Unknowingly, I’ve probably taught my students to engage with words in the same abstracted, ultimately alienating way. I’ve trained readers without harmony and fostered habits of mind without regard for the heart and body. And so we all journeyed through a text together with distant skepticism, wary intellectualism, an upturned nose, a closed-off heart. Granted, I did ask students how they felt and what they experienced, but the direction of all our discussions privileged thoughts above emotions. Who cares about care when it can’t be measured, when it can’t be argued…
All The Light We Cannot See broke me. Or rather, it made me feel more complete. Harmonious. I felt my heart connected, my mind engaged. For the first time in a long time, I actually imagined the story in my head. Anthony Doerr didn’t just put words on the page, he dropped portals. And so I was transported. To places where my heart broke, and then filled up. Every writer invites readers into a new world, but I invariably used new worlds to dive more deeply into my own old one. (Do my nonfiction inclinations show curiosity and wonder about what I don’t know, or a desire to preserve what I already know?) For whatever reason (it’s an incredible story, beautifully written, with totally relatable characters), Doerr affected me. He made me feel more alive. More connected. More capacious.
So what will I do with this expansion? Read more. Relate more. Empathize more truly. Stories are keys that unlock a terribly trapped heart, if you’re not too busy using them to lock down your mind.