I thought it was timely that Sheila Kennedy (who blogs more regularly than me and you should read) spoke of reading fiction to escape the news of the day. (Michael Leppert also had a book related blog post.) Particularly since the election, I have backed away from social media to a large extent. (Less Facebook & Twitter but slightly more Reddit). I’ve always been a pretty diligent reader but have probably increased my reading this year and, in particular, have read more fiction.
[Side note: I think fiction and the stories we read give us what amounts to an advanced vocabulary. Not so much the extra words we learn; but the piles of narratives which can work as metaphors that help us understand and describe the world. In his book 1984, Orwell talked about how the Party was imposing “Newspeak” to limit the vocabulary of the population and make it easier to control. Instead of excellent, terrific, fantastic, etc. you’d have good or maybe plus good and double-plus good. Terrible would be captured by ungood and plus ungood, etc. If the population didn’t have words to describe concepts like “liberty,” it would be very unlikely that any opposition to the Party would arise around that concept. The stories we hear and tell give us additional metaphors with which to describe the world. I could take a further digression into Star Trek: The Next Generation’s episode Darmok which has aliens who speak entirely in such metaphors. But I won’t.]
Anyway, I’ve started the “Greatcoat” series by Sebastien de Castell. Described as “Three Musketeers meets high fantasy.” It’s generally light & fast-paced (as was his “Spellslinger” series which I read last year and earlier this year & enjoyed.) But, even in such pieces, you get observations that put you very much in mind of the real world. He has the beleaguered king in his world speaking to the protagonist about the Dukes challenging his power, the state of the people suffering from those Dukes, and the nation’s potential vulnerability to nations outside the borders. All of this creating discontent and despair:
“Our nation is weakened by a system that breeds a visceral hatred so deep that most people would as soon see the world burn as stay as it is, but lack the will to try and change it.”
My sense is that seeing that sort of sentiment expressed in the context of a fantasy land will make the reader more apt to recognize its presence in the real world when he or she sees it than would a similar statement made explicitly about the real world. Those words coming out of the lips of a fantasy king trying to make his land better end up being more persuasive than, say, the same words coming out of a political activist complaining about political opponents. Douglas Rushkoff touched on this sort of dynamic in “Media Virus.” Ideas sort of slip into our head when they’re carried by a vector that doesn’t trigger our defenses.
If we’re going to reach common ground as a country, it’s not going to be because we argue each other into submission. It’s going to be because we’re doing something else together in a way that inadvertently makes us realize that we have something in common.