Isn’t that the whole freaking point of fiction?

If you read fiction, chances are you’re drawn now, more than ever, to stories that help you escape today’s polarizing politics. Nostalgic stories. Futuristic stories. Stories that draw you into worlds other than your own.

Penguin Random House editor Sally Kim, during a panel in New York City at this year’s BookExpo (the industry’s mega trade event), suggested to the audience that readers are urgently craving perspectives that are not their own.

“Which, of course,” she said, “is the whole freaking point of fiction.”

So why is it so hard for us, when it comes to politics, to lift the cloak of opinion from our own back and crawl inside someone else’s skin—just for a minute?

We do it all the time when we read fiction—we jump from one character’s point of view to another’s without batting an eye. We lose ourselves in a scene where the author takes us deep inside the heroine’s innermost desires, and them—bam—we’re taken inside the mind of the man who’s about to break her heart, and we understand his reasons for it. Perhaps we even like the guy.

“I have found that a story leaves a deeper impression,” wrote Russian writer Leo Tolstoy more than a century ago, “when it is impossible to tell which side the author is on.”

The narrative point of view in one of the most famous of all the world’s novels, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, tells the story of the French invasion of Russia through the lives of five aristocratic families. Tolstoy hesitated to call the book a novel because it is also a philosophical exploration. The cast of characters is extravagant, as are their immense and often conflicting perspectives.

Surely modern-day Putin has read the world’s most famous Russian writer? Makes one wonder what novels, if any, are on the nightstands of the leaders of the world.

Tolstoy brought a new consciousness to the novel through War and Peace because he gave the reader not only that omniscient, god-like view of the world, but he also invited the reader inside the hearts of his characters. He made the world question what they thought they knew to be true.

This is the power of fiction in skilled hands. This is the power of walking in someone else’s shoes—even if only for a moment—even if only for ten minutes standing in line for coffee. Curiosity is a healthy place for the human mind to dwell. Especially when coupled with humility.

“The only thing that we know,” Tolstoy wrote, “is that we know nothing and that is the highest flight of human wisdom.”

To admit our ignorance, then, is to give ourselves wings. Sadly, many of our politicians, even those with good hearts and noble ideals, are flying low to the ground.

Perhaps it is human nature to prefer familiar landscapes. Where we know the lay of the land, the places where like-minded friends hang out. Where the daily specials are the same, week after week.

But what about the fun in discovering that you like hot pastrami on holidays even more than turkey? What about the thrill of the unknown? What about those wings?

The view from the sky is the god-view. Tolstoy knew that. Yet it was the journey into the heart of Anna Karenina that led him to discover more intimately what it meant to be human.

“I think... if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.”

And so we must, if we are ever to find peace in the face of war, look into each other's eyes and listen with our hearts. Lest all the novels of the world turn to ash, and the last phoenix has fled.

Note: Thank you to publishing guru Jane Friedman for bringing my attention to the quote from Sally Kim. Read more of Jane Friedman's take-away from BookExpo 2019. Thank you to photographer Gary Caskey for the photo of the Wyoming eagle.


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