In which I question my carefully-held world views

January 7, 2007 § Leave a comment

I like to have at least one fiction and nonfiction book going all the time, and so I read a lot of histories, I suppose because people interest me on a more basic level than sciences or self-help. I like speculating about the many-generations-removed ancestors of people I see on the street— Whose grandfather fought the Crusades? Whose grandmother was Inka aristocracy? Whose uncle helped draft the Míng Code?— and so on, because even when they’re not recorded, our family trees go back and back and back.

And while nonfiction can paint a broader picture and provide vital context to events and personalities, for me at least, it can’t demonstrate the character of a period as fiction can. I really felt the impossibility of the Congolese plight after I read The Poisonwood Bible. Despite the terrific effort of my World History teacher, the machinations of Claudian Dynasty seemed hazy till I read I, Claudius, and I knew nothing about twentieth-century South Africa before apartheid before I read Cry, The Beloved Country.

I know that this feeling of familiarity is wrong-headed. It’s the nature (and definition) of fiction to be untrue, to exaggerate and distort, because drama and conflict make good reading. Maybe the novel is written in the first person. Maybe a bit of revisionism helps the author drive his point home. Whatever the case, I do realize fiction is fiction, and can’t be trusted— or treated— as fact. But doesn’t the same hold true for nonfiction?

A human is still relaying human events, and however hard the scholar tries, her biases and opinions do color her prose, inadvertently or not, through word choice or omission or deliberate distortion. So how true are nonfiction histories? How true should we expect them to be? And since human history is made up of billions of individuals’ subjective experiences, is there an objective truth to be had?

So, if we can never see the whole picture or understand the entire truth, is good historical fiction less worthy of study than historical nonfiction? History seems much richer, much more human when explored through narrative, or through the lens of one person’s eyes. In the manner of Herodotus, really. Which is what my World History teacher was getting at, I think.

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