Why We Read: To Stretch Our World

“We need fiction to stretch our world.”  ~Susan Sontag

If you want to learn something new—about yourself, the people around you, the world—there are plenty of nonfiction resources. Very bright people dedicate their lives to conducting research or sharing their personal experiences in the hopes of enlightening the rest of us.

Still, I find my eyes are opened widest through fiction. I’ve felt the dust in my throat as it swept across the Great Plains,  realized what it means to be unjustly accused, been an Outsider, discovered how to work a lighthouse, and much more. In fact,  I usually learn more and in a way that resonates with me longer through fiction than nonfiction. Nonfiction often has an agenda. The author has a thesis and is trying to convince me of X. With fiction, I let my guard down. No one is getting preachy (not in good fiction, anyway) or trying to persuade me. The author is presenting the details as they unfold, and I take what I want from it. Fiction immerses me in the lives, occupations, and eras of the people who lived them. These people may exist only in my imagination, but they are representatives for thousands who may not have had a voice.

And so it was with Salt to the Sea, a wonderful new novel by Ruta Sepetys. Near the end of WWII, there was a maritime disaster so terrible, it dwarfed the losses of the Titanic and the Lusitania combined. When the Wilhelm Gustloff sank to the bottom of the Baltic Sea from three Russian torpedoes, it took the lives of more than 9,000 people. Many were refugees and injured soldiers who were “trying to escape from a no-man’s land neither Axis nor Allied in a war already lost but not yet won.” (Read the spot-on New York Times review.)

 

Salt to the Sea

Weaving four narratives in very short chapters (reminiscent of All the Light We Cannot See), Ms. Sepetys brought me there to Gdynia, Poland, with her characters and asked me to make impossible, often heartbreaking decisions. Leave your family behind? Wait for the iron curtain to close across Eastern Europe or take your chance with the Nazis? Send your baby aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff with strangers in a desperate attempt to get him to safety? Behind each of these decisions were people faced with seemingly insurmountable odds. We put ourselves in their shoes. We wonder: would I have the courage, the strength to overcome this?

Every time I pick up a new book, my eyes are opened again and again, and I learn more about myself and the kind of person I want to be.

 

“I am drawn to stories of strength through struggle. I think how we deal with the challenges that face us—that’s what really defines us.” ~Ruta Sepetys.

 

What books have stretched your world lately? Have a great weekend, everyone! 

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23 comments

  1. Hi Jackie. Wonderful post! I’ve just downloaded the ebook version of Salt to the Sea. I totally agree that fiction opens our eyes to new worlds. It also (hopefully) encourages empathy for we see the world through others’ eyes. I am reading Elena Ferrante’s books about the friendship of two women in Naples from childhood through adulthood. It’s a fascinating look at a complex culture–where violence is commonplace. Highly recommended!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve heard many good things about the Neapolitan trilogy. A friend said that she wished there had been a family tree at the beginning of the book because there were so many characters. (And many of them go by more than one name!) Are you finding it hard to keep track of all the characters?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Love this post – spot on! And that sounds like a good read. I am currently struggling through my first German book but will definitely put this one on my list. Have also heard great things about ‘All the light we cannot see’. Spring is coming so there will be a lot of sitting outside cafés reading great books!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s snowing here today, so I’m really looking forward to a lot of outdoor reading time. If you get a chance to read either of these novels, let me know what you think.

      Good luck finishing your first German book!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks! It’s taking a while 😉 I have a book of short stories lined up next. I hope that will be easier going! I’ll keep you posted if I read either of these! And roll on spring proper 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. For years I tried to read stories with English on one side of the page and Italian on the other. It hurt my brain. 🙂

        But you inspired me recently to find Italian lessons on YouTube. There is an Italian woman who takes her camera around Milan and has “conversations” about different topics. That’s been fun. I’m hoping she takes us to a restaurant soon. 🙂

        Like

  3. Hi Jackie,

    This book is sitting on my shelves, waiting to be read. Sounds like it’s one of those cross-over YAs appealing to adults. Any comparison to ALL THE LIGHT YOU CANNOT SEE is enough encouragement to read sooner rather than later. Thanks, and have a great weekend. Lorraine

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think SALT TO THE SEA will have a lot of cross-over appeal. Despite having read many books about WWII, I’d never come across any information about the Wilhelm Gustloff.
      I hope this novel resonates with you as much as it did with me.

      Like

  4. Couldn’t agree more, Jackie. I love reading about challenging situations and how people cope with them.
    Sepetys’ first book was so wonderful–hope this one is as good. I think it’s great that she’s uncovering stories that really need to be told. Had never heard of this disaster before.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I loved how Ruta Sepetys created such a compelling narrative from this real event. It could have easily been overly sentimental, but she did a nice job keeping the story moving forward — much the way I imagine the people involved in this horrible situation did. I hope you enjoy this one as much as I did.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow– well this is the best summary I’ve ever seen of why we read: “Every time I pick up a new book, my eyes are opened again and again, and I learn more about myself and the kind of person I want to be.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Dude I totally agree with you about needing fiction and what a great quote you found. Although I also enjoy bios because sometimes the stuff that happens in them blows my mind and it seems like fiction. But I just so love storytelling and how it does take me to different places, I love the conversations. Most of all. Like reading how people get out of or survive just jacked up dramatic situations end up with a hopeful feeling. Good post buddy. I’ll check it out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Couldn’t have said it better myself!
      “I just so love storytelling and how it does take me to different places.”
      Yes! If you get to read this one, let me know what you think.
      Hope you’re having a Guat-astic Monday!

      Like

  7. Some people criticize readers of fiction as being escapists, and claim reading anything but nonfiction is a waste of time. So it was with particular joy that I read this post, because it validates what I have always felt in my deepest heart, Jackie – we can learn and broaden our minds JUST FINE by reading fiction, thank you! 

    9000, oh my. And I can’t believe I’d never heard of this ship! How does that happen? Well, you can bet I am putting this one on my reading list. Thanks for the heads up!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well said, Cynthia! I’ve heard similar criticisms about fiction vs. nonfiction. I guess I’m biased, but I believe that fiction can illuminate and change the world. 😉

      I’d never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff either. And after talking with a number of people, I realized I wasn’t alone. It’s hard to believe that an even of this magnitude was not discussed more in films and books. I hope you find this book as moving as I did.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Jackie! I finally added you to my Bloglovin feed since I was missing all your posts ! Now I can catch up. I have not heard of this book or this story and it sounds like a great read. I recently read An Invisible Thread: The True Story of an 11-Year-Old Panhandler, a Busy Sales Executive, and an Unlikely Meeting with Destiny and it made me realize how much there is still left to do in the world when it comes to making changes. A lot.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Beth Ann, Great to see you back in these parts. I think your site must have dropped off my feed as well. Strange how that happens!
      Thanks for your recommendation. I see your recent reads pop up on my Goodreads page and love to see what’s on your bookshelf. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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