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Editorial: A novel path toward understanding

  • Marcel Proust


Friday, February 17, 2017

In the fifth volume of In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust wrote, “Man is the creature who cannot escape from himself, who knows other people only in himself, and when he asserts the contrary, he is lying.”

If you want to understand why division runs so deep in this nation, in this world, Proust’s quote is a good place to start. In fact, so is well-written fiction in general.

Like many of you, we spend a lot of time consuming news – even when we are not working. And also like many of you, when we are not consuming news we are reading nonfiction that will add deeper context to current events. But in this age of the never-ending news cycle – and with the gears grinding even harder since Donald Trump took the reins of the executive branch – getting current and staying there can feel like a fool’s errand.

It’s exhausting.

And if you follow the news too closely and for too long, you run the risk of letting outrage become your default setting. If you doubt that statement, spend 15 minutes reading through the nhpolitics hashtag on Twitter during a big day at the State House and then check your blood pressure.

Escape is a good thing, but a good novel is more than that; it is life experienced within the hearts and minds of others. Think again about Proust’s quote, especially the part that reads “who knows other people only in himself.” If you believe that to be true, as we do, the fundamental cause of all political, racial, economic, religious and social division becomes clear. Every person is stuck within the dimensions of their own personal universe – 7 billion unique ones on the planet – and none of them can see or feel anything outside of what they know. It’s not a choice; it’s the human condition.

But there are a lot of ways to expand a universe. It can be as simple as really listening to someone talk (as opposed to merely waiting for your turn) or as exotic as traveling the world. And then, of course, there is reading.

News is important, maybe now more than ever, but it should be supplemented with fiction. Every novel has the ability to help you understand the world and the people who inhabit it a little better because you are seeing everything through different eyes. The best authors are the ones who provide the clearest picture. It’s the reason why people still read Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dickens, Melville, etc. – but you don’t have to slog your way through the Modern Library 100 Best Novels list to gain a deeper understanding of your fellow human beings.

Everybody knows the classics – there’s no need to tout the greatness of The Grapes of Wrath – but we thought we would offer a few new titles we have come across in the past couple of months that may jump-start your fiction reading or keep it going.

In A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, the eminently likeable Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to spend the rest of his days inside the Metropol, an elegant Moscow hotel, following the Russian Revolution.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney follows an 85-year-old advertising legend as she walks along the streets of New York alone on New Year’s Eve, 1984.

Zadie Smith’s Swing Time uses the relationship between two longtime friends as a catalyst to explore race, class and celebrity.

Finally, Ha Jin’s The Boat Rocker is a perfectly timed novel about how difficult it can be for a journalist to find and report the truth.

So read the news – it’s important that you do. But save some time for the novelists, too. They have so much to show you.