She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain.
In Louisa May Alcott’s novel, Work: A Story of Experience, the heroine Christie falls asleep while reading and drops the book, tipping over a candle and setting the room ablaze. Her employer, Mrs. Stuart, cries out in hysterics: “She has been at the wine, or lost her wits. She must go, Horatio, she must go! I cannot have my nerves shattered by such dreadful scenes. She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain.”
Ought we to tie our petticoats in a knot fretting that extensive reading may negatively impact the mind? Does immersing ourselves in fictional worlds detach us from the one in which we live? Do stories, with their larger-than-life turns of events and explosive endings, give us false expectations for our own lives? Must writers necessarily portray a misleading or romanticized portrait of reality when they tell a story?
In short, does compelling fiction augment reality?
Viewing the Bigger Picture
On the contrary, I would argue, powerful fiction compresses reality, so that we can begin to comprehend its vastness within the scope of our limited perspective, thereby expanding our vision outward to perceive the grandest of truths which before we were too nearsighted to see. In effect, reality is a mosaic, and fiction distances us from it just enough to perceive the larger picture, and therefore, almost paradoxically, brings its meaning that much nearer to us.
If literature appears to embellish actuality, it is only because, as Alfred Hitchcock famously remarked, “drama is life with the dull bits cut out”. It truncates the lines connecting the dots so that the image is more compact and potent in nature. Distilling truth in this way at once sensitizes us to the grander aspects of life to relish them more fully and eagerly anticipate their coming, while drawing our attention to the smaller stepping stones that exist between them in real life, that we may better appreciate their significance and more patiently endure their passing.
Exploring circumstances different from our own compels us to extricate the eternal from the temporal, to confront what transcends time and place, culture and custom. We shed, layer by layer, the outward trappings of life to lay bare what really matters in the end.
That said, is all fiction constructive in these ways? Surely there are books that inadequately convey the truths of the universe, and books that adeptly portray mistruths. The author must make it his mission to write with honesty the subjects that pursue him, and to write well.
And so in immersing ourselves in such stories, we do not escape from reality so much as plunge into the very heart of it.
Tell me your thoughts: In what ways have stories opened your eyes to truths, little or big, that you hadn’t considered? Do you find that fiction more often disillusions you to the world in which we live, or endears you toward it—or accomplishes both simultaneously? Have you encountered stories that fail to portray reality honestly, either by sugarcoating or painting an irrationally bleak portrait of life?