Why We Read: The Truth

Have you seen the television program Making of a Murderer? I haven’t, but my co-workers and I were discussing what it means to get “the truth.” The program contains real footage from the interrogation of a man who was arrested for two crimes, decades apart. The scenes are both gripping and heartbreaking.

Those of us who hadn’t followed the case when it happened in 2003 are in suspense about the result for Avery, the man in question. We quickly realize the question isn’t: was Avery exonerated of these charges, but what is the truth? In this case, we may never know.

The conversation reminded me of a novel I just finished, The Light Between Oceans, where we, the readers, do know the truth. A lighthouse keeper, named Tom Sherbourne, and his wife, are living on a remote island off the coast of Australia. One day a boat washes ashore with a man, dead on arrival, and his infant daughter, who is alive. Tom and his wife decide to keep the baby and raise her as their own. (I’m not giving anything away that isn’t revealed on the jacket copy.) Of course the implications of this decision are far-reaching and disastrous for many people. No one escapes with a clean conscience and no one knows the full story, yet everyone wants redemption. What is so compelling about the novel is that it never makes a judgment on the characters. It doesn’t it try to convince you that what they did was acceptable or not. You’re only presented with the facts of why they did it. The story simply asks you to meet the characters where they are with an open mind.

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The Light Between Oceans is the first novel or narrative nonfiction I’ve read in quite a while that evokes my sympathy for all the characters, even if I don’t agree with their actions. I understand the situation from every angle. I get it, and I get them. This is why fiction can be truer than reality. In fiction—in good fiction—a character’s motivations stem from his or her truth. In life, we often don’t know “beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that fiction reveals the truth that reality obscures. When a character’s actions lack sufficient motivation, something doesn’t ring true for me. When they do, I connect in a meaningful way, even though the people aren’t real.

This is what I wanted to write about today as my first post in a monthly series looking at why we read, how we can use storytelling to spread compassion, and the implication of what we read in a larger context.

What do you think fiction and creative storytelling can teach us about life and truth?

Have a great weekend, everyone!

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33 comments

  1. The Emerson quote highlights one of my fundamental beliefs about fiction–that it reveals the truth that reality obscures. That’s a joy for me–to really understand a character by exploring his/her motivations and actions. That’s one of the reasons I write!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Such a great post, Jackie. I think fiction teaches us — maybe enlightens us? — about how other lives are lived, lets us see glimpses into the truths of others, thereby giving us more understanding, allowing us more empathy, even for people and lives very unlike our own…uncovering the universal truths about humanity, maybe. (It’s one of the reasons I love reading so much!) BTW, I’ve not read The Light Between the Oceans but have had it on my list for ages, and now I want to read it even more.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I look forward to reading your posts in this new series!

      Fiction gives us a window into the inner workings of the mind and it broadens our perspective. It gives us the change to try on different minds to view the same facts of the story. It’s hard not to come away changed from that. When I read your post, I was instantly reminded of reading Nabokov’s Lolita. I knew the gist of the plot going in and I had already judged the character of Humbert Humbert and knew he was vile. But being inside his mind as he twisted and spun the events was disconcerting. I did not expect him to be so charming, which made him all the more horrifying.

      The Light between the Oceans — great title. I’ll have to check this one out.

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      1. Lolita is a great example. I had the same leanings that you did about Humbert Humbert. It’s been a while since I read it, but that unsettled feeling remains like a residue.

        If you get a chance to read The Light Between the Oceans, let me know what you think.

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    2. Lolita is a great example. I had the same leanings that you did about Humbert Humbert. It’s been a while since I read it, but that unsettled feeling remains like a residue.

      If you get a chance to read The Light Between the Oceans, let me know what you think.

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    3. Yes! Enlightens is a great word to describe what great fiction can do for us.

      I also had this novel on my TBR list for a long time. I’m glad I finally picked it up. I loved how the author was able to allow the characters to make their mistakes without getting in their way. I was rooting for all of them! I think it’s being made into a movie with Rachel Weisz.

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  3. I love this post, Jackie, and I’m excited you will be doing more like this.

    It’s to the point with me and books, that I can’t read any more that aren’t written in a genuine manner. By this I mean exactly what you said here: “When a character’s actions lack sufficient motivation, something doesn’t ring true for me. When they do, I connect in a meaningful way, even though the people aren’t real.”

    There’s so much hollow fiction out there now, with writers being pretty much forced to write a book a year (or more, in the case of self-published authors). The art sometimes seems degraded to a mere prettily-packaged commodity. The ‘hype’ surrounding a book’s release – sometimes offering comparisons with best-sellers it bears little or no real resemblance to – offers no good barometer of the actual quality of the reading experience. I rely more and more on honest reader/reviewers to give me direction in finding those gems in the compost pile.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad that this post resonated for you.
      For years I felt an obligation to finish every book I started. Recently I’ve let myself off that hook. There are plenty of books sent into the marketplace every day, and some are terrible for many of the reasons you mentioned. So I decided that if I’m not engaged by a certain point, I give myself permission to abandon it for something else. Life is too short to read bad books. 🙂

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  4. Duuuuuuuude you just keep coming in with these good reads that strike a chord. I hadn’t heard of it , but now it’s on the list. Most of your books are on my list. I’m gonna start The Glass Castle, have you heard about it? Oooooh And you know what? I completely agree with you on the intentions or “why” they do things, if I know the why and it rings true I tend to empathize and “get it”. Oh! And you know that Making of a Murderer is in my Netflix Queue and I’m gonna debut it today, just finished Master of None, because I was on a comedy mood for Christmas. But I’m on it, I hear such great things! Dude good post all around.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. HOLY !#%*€! I just finished watching it last night!! This was the first show I’ve finished in two nights because it sucked me in. I had never heard of Steve Avery before this and it freaking blew my mind. Totally going to post something about this. I mean if I can find the words….duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuude. I mean dude. I. Can’t. Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeven believe it.

        And yes, I watched Kimmie Schmidt I thought Titus was so awesome, that should would be a good comic relief right about now. That Tina Fey … Man, what a writer.

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  5. Good post. It made me think of the excellent Iranian film A Separation. Have you seen it? What I found so compelling was at some point during the film I was able to feel sympathy/understanding for all of the different characters, even though I didn’t like or agree with their behavior. At least to me, that is the point of telling a story whether written, or spoken on film.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great point! It can be difficult for the author to stay out of the characters’ lives. The author wants to insert himself to tell the reader or viewer what they should think or point out where the characters could have made better decisions. It takes a strong writer to present the facts (the characters’ truths) and get out of the way. A much more compelling story, I think!

      I haven’t seen “A Separation,” but I added it to my Netflix queue. Thanks for the recommendation.

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  6. A good story, for me, will always make me question my own beliefs and judgements..maybe make me squirm a little bit in the process. When a writer captures something so real with such depth..and makes you gasp in the process.

    Good first post for your new series. I dig it.

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  7. Like others, I am so excited you’ll be writing about the topic of why we read and its impact. The Light Between Oceans is one of my all-time favorites — a book I intended on re-reading this year for the very reasons you cite. I agree with you as well – that a lack of clear or genuine character motivation is often what stops me from fully engaging in a book. I also agree with Cynthia that the frenetic publishing pace some authors are forced into only exacerbates this situation. I was like you as well, up until last year… feeling I had to finish a book at any cost. But there are so many GOOD books out there that we shouldn’t settle for the mediocre. I’m trying to do better at devoting my time ONLY to those books that move me emotionally.

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    1. There were so many gems in this book. A close re-reading would be well worth it! I would love to dissect how the author was able to so gently present all sides of the issue without pushing readers into a certain opinion.

      I hear this is going to be a movie in late 2016/early 2017.

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      1. A movie? I am SOOOO there! Wish we lived closer; we could go together. Yes, I took pretty good notes on the first read, and I think point of view is one of the techniques that really helped present so many sides to the issue. You have inspired me to pick it up for a second read to determine the other techniques I might have missed. This was her first novel, wasn’t it?!?! Impressive and delicious!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, this was her first novel. Impressive indeed! Her technique is so subtle. I kept reviewing passages, wondering how she was able to ingrain the characters’ personalities without my even realizing it.

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  8. Many people want stories with definite black and white answers and strong characters who intrinsically know the right thing to do, but it’s much more useful for us to follow characters who don’t have all the answers.

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    1. I’ve become curious about stories with characters I don’t necessarily like yet are very compelling and therefore interesting. I don’t know if I could write a story with a central character like this, but it makes for a more engaging read.

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  9. So glad you reviewed this one, Jackie, because I’ve been on the fence about it for some time. I was pretty sure it would end badly and I have to be in the right frame of mind for that. I do tend to balance heavy reading with something lighter.

    I read to learn about people and places that are so different from mine. I also like to see how they handle difficult situations.

    P.S. I loved Kimmie Schmidt!

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    1. Now that you mention it, I do that too. I try to pick a new read that will best serve my current frame of mind.

      Wasn’t Kimmie Schmidt delightful? Loved the courtroom cameos near the end of the season. I hope they are making more episodes.

      Liked by 1 person

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