This week, news came out that a group of scientists has proven, once and for all, that reading literary fiction increases one’s ability to empathize with others. For some of us in the writing biz, that’s a no brainer. Still, it’s nice to have our sense of things confirmed. The scientists explained that literary fiction, which shows the interior life of characters, teaches us how people think. Commercial fiction, which they contend focuses more on action, doesn’t achieve this. Over the years, I’ve heard writers and publishing professionals define these types of writing, but never with such authority. Perhaps it helps to be outside the world of books to see it more clearly.
These days, I’m so in the midst of a "literary life"—writing or reading, attending conferences and festivals, meeting fellow writers and publishing professional—that I can forget why I do this in the first place. It makes me wonder, what does a literary life really mean?
Last night, the car radio helped me remember the answer. I sat in my driveway in the dark and listened to the BBC World Service report on literary happenings around the globe. Not a reading by Salman Rushdie in some hallowed, ivy-covered hall. Not interviews with Jhumpa Lahiri or Dave Eggers on their latest books. But instead, reports from distant outposts—villages and hamlets way off the beaten path. And each brief story illustrated the power of literature in a deeply powerful way.
In Somaliland, children crowd around and elbow each other to get their hands on books. This remote region of a war-torn country has set down their guns. Adults and kids alike sit with their heads bent over books. For obvious reasons, their favorite is War and Peace.
In Afghanistan, women write their stories—tales that are uniformly horrific and yet they’re eager to share them. Near the end of the interview, though, a teenage girl says she is tired of women writing stories of rape, incest and murder. It is time, she declares, for them to instead write a new history of their country.
A different reporter visits Shakespeare & Company on the Left Bank in Paris, a bookshop crowded, floor to ceiling, with books. Joyce and Stein, Hemingway and Camus, all hung out here. The warren of rooms feels more like a library than a store, a sacred setting of literary history. (I remember my first visit there at age eighteen and have been thankful each time I’ve returned to find it unchanged.)
Mules laden with books make their way across rough terrain to Argentine villages, offering a popular mobile lending library. In Kenya, schools are mobile as well, so that nomadic sheepherding tribes can learn to read and write. In the sandy soil, sheep droppings are used to spell out the alphabet.
In the South Pacific, an elderly British trader is forced to finally toss away his books: Captain Cooke’s travel diaries, Robert Louis Stephenson’s volumes, Robinson Crusoe, James Michener, and dozens of others, have all been ravaged by humidity and bugs. The old trader says, You have to know what you’re up against here. His ruined books seem to illustrate what he means.
And in a city square in Morocco, one of the last dozen storytellers in the country shares a scene from A Thousand and One Nights. For over 1,000 years, stories have been passed down in this way. In a country with a 40% illiteracy rate, the tales are now being digitally recorded and saved for posterity.
These are the stories of literary life that I want to try to remember the next time I check my Goodreads account or Amazon author page. Books, as the scientists have now proven, help us understand the human heart. In settings where life is harsh, that understanding is crucial. Here in the comfort of home, it offers a vital life line to what matters as well.