Saturday, December 17, 2016

I Like Literary Fiction and I Cannot Lie

This semester I read literary fiction for the first time in my life. In August the following idea entered my mind, in September I acknowledged it, and in October I asked others about this idea to see if I was being absurd or dramatic; to see if I was crazy:

Is it possible to learn more about life by reading literary fiction than through actual experiences?

Let me explain before you go looking to buy me a straight jacket for Hanukkah. We move through life with just one point of view—our own. We can try putting ourselves in others' shoes and seeing the world from their perspective, but that's nothing more than an exercise in building the capacity to empathize. Besides you, only Russian hackers can actually see the world from your perspective, and even that's only if your mobile phone is on your person. (Of course it is.)

More than any other activity besides hacking, reading may bring us closest to seeing the world from another's point of view. As Elizabeth Strout writes in her latest novel My Name Is Lucy Barton, fiction "reports on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do."

My question tore at me. If the answer is "yes" then what have I missed out on by not reading literary fiction most of my life? And if the answer is "no" then why have I spent my life in such un-fulfillment that I would even ask that question?

My writing mentor this semester, GrilledCheese, guided me. GrilledCheese said that reading and writing are actual life experiences, so not only do they teach us about life but they also don't compete with life. The two are complements.

So my question, Is it possible to learn more about life by reading literary fiction than through actual experiences? should be re-framed as, How do I use literary fiction to enhance my life experiences?

I saw the same ear, nose and throat doctor from before I had a memory through my teens. Typically my parents took me to see him every three months, though more frequently around the five ear operations he performed on me as a boy. And nothing or nobody caused me more pain than this man. He shot alcohol into my holey eardrums when they got infected; he cauterized and stuck needles through their membranes. Sometimes I imagined the bacterial infections, or the things he shoved into my head to treat them, going all the way to my brain.

Dr. Wadley was not abusive. His methods were just the standards of the time, and whatever he did saved me from deafness. Even as a boy I understood that he hurt me because he cared. I could see that he cared.

After my second operation he wrapped a bandage around my stuffed animal's head identical to the one around mine. Eight years later he attended my bar mitzvah, and three years after that he sent me frequent "get well" cards during my year in treatment for my first cancer.

When Dr. Wadley retired I began seeing his partner, who I still see—now about every four months, not three. The two doctors kept in touch and I asked about Dr. Wadley every time I saw Dr. PoorBrownsFan. Dr. Wadley had moved to southern Virginia, got very involved with his church, and was loving retirement, according to Dr. PoorBrownsFan. I liked the idea of my old ear doctor, who had looked like an aged Cal Ripken Jr., riding a lawnmower to cut the grass around his large property and no longer having to shoot fire into little boys' ears.

As years passed I inquired about Dr. Wadley less. That's what happens as we age. The recency effect takes hold and old memories of old friends get buried by new ones.

After finishing My Name Is Lucy Barton tonight, I thought of Dr. Wadley. That's what reading literary fiction can do to you. One minute you can be sitting on the sofa with a Kindle in your hand and the next you can be searching the internet to see if a man who had cared for you for half your life has passed away.

Dr. Wadley died in May of this year at 82 years old. I am sure I would have learned of his passing at some point. Maybe Dr. PoorBrownsFan would have informed me the next time I see him, even. But for whatever reason, my reading a great piece of literary fiction triggered in me the thought of Dr. Wadley; it connected me with actual life experiences.

If there is an afterlife then I'm sure Dr. Wadley is hanging out with his former Army buddies. Maybe imitating Cal Ripken Jr. in a heaven talent show. Definitely painting on giant murals because he deserves a large canvas after decades of making masterpieces on tiny membranes.

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