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The Power of Story

“No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass.  gryphon

So beseeches the Gryphon to Alice – and with plenty of history and evidence to support his plea.

Aristotle claimed that reading fiction (i.e. the epics of Homer, Sophocles, and Euripides) is a more serious business than history. He argued that history tells us what has happened, whereas fiction tells us what might happen, which stretches our imaginations and gives us insight into ourselves and others.

More recently, Martha Nussbaum, author of Poetic Justice, writes that reading fiction puts us in the role of sympathetic spectator and helps make us better citizens in relation to issues such as justice in society. She argues that what we really mean by justice is not simply applying the rules to a set of facts, but understanding imaginatively and emotionally what is going on for both perpetrators and victims. Indeed, psychological studies have shown that a powerful story can have a hand in rewiring the reader’s brain – helping instill empathy, for instance.

One of the most transformative pieces of fiction for me – and perhaps the book that gave me my life-long love of suspense – was Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White’s now-classic tale of a pig who becomes friends with a heroic spider named Charlotte. charlottes-web-e-b-white-book-cover-art

The first line is about preventing a murder. “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” Fern asks her mother. When she learns that he’s going to the hoghouse to kill the runt of a litter born the night before, she chases her father down and talks him out of it. “This is the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard of,” she says.

Recently, a letter from the author was published revealing that he wrote the book because he felt exactly the same way.

“A farm is a peculiar problem for a man who likes animals, because the fate of most livestock is that they are murdered by their benefactors. The creatures may live serenely but they end violently, and the odor of doom hangs about them always. I have kept several pigs, starting them in spring as weanlings and carrying trays to them all through summer and fall. The relationship bothered me. Day by day I became better acquainted with my pig, and he with me, and the fact that the whole adventure pointed toward an eventual piece of double-dealing on my part lent an eerie quality to the thing. I do not like to betray a person or a creature, and I tend to agree with Mr. E.M. Forster that in these times the duty of a man, above all else, is to be reliable. It used to be clear to me, slopping a pig, that as far as the pig was concerned I could not be counted on, and this, as I say, troubled me. Anyway, the theme of ‘Charlotte’s Web’ is that a pig shall be saved, and I have an idea that somewhere deep inside me there was a wish to that effect.”

I believe that a lot of people have that wish somewhere deep inside. Maybe we just need more stories to awaken it.

One Comment

  1. No one better to awaken those dreams than you, Robin. Best of luck with this new venture.

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