Fiction might be ‘all made up’, but a great novel illuminates reality like nothing else. How? For Milan Kundera, literature is essential to humanity’s body of knowledge precisely because it does not represent scientific thinking. Fiction’s power is in its resistance to reductionist thought and its willingness to engage with life’s complexity. Novelists weave and layer a multitude of observations about the lived human condition. The truer and more attentive these observations, the more complex the fiction, and the less certain its conclusions. Indeed, according to Kundera, the novel’s wisdom is “the wisdom of uncertainty”.
This doesn’t sound like much to lean on. Yet it turns out that in times of trouble being able to access the wisdom of uncertainty is an invaluable resource.
Literature accompanies us, even through the uncertainty and profound isolation of sorrow or fear. Australian novelist and literature professor Brenda Walker, for example, packed fiction to take with her when she was admitted to hospital for surgery, knowing that choosing “the right book” would positively complement her medical treatment for breast cancer. “With the right book,” she writes, “we find out what imaginary strangers have done with their share of this amazing thing, life.”
Oliver Sacks, felled by the death of his mother, was drawn to reading Ibsen’s plays. “Ibsen called to me,” he wrote, “called to my condition, and his was the only voice I could bear.”
Neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, who had majored in English literature before studying medicine, found himself returning to literature when he was seriously ill with cancer. Reading helped restore his diminished sense of identity, and treated his over-riding feelings of helplessness and paralysis:
Lost in a featureless wasteland of my own mortality, and finding no traction in the reams of scientific studies, intracellular molecular pathways, and endless curves of survival statistics, I began reading literature again: Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, Woolf, Kafka, Montaigne, Frost, Greville, memoirs of cancer patients – anything by anyone who had ever written about mortality. I was searching for a vocabulary with which to make sense of death, for find a way to begin defining myself and inching forward again … I needed words to go forward.”
Walker, Sacks and Kalanithi are only three examples of people who, in crisis, turn or return to literature seeking solace and strength. Like them, I too have been lucky enough to enjoy a rich reading life, and so, with a flick of the mind, can be quietly accompanied by “imaginary strangers”, the beneficiary of a wealth of fictional experiences.
My good fortune was in growing up with access to a free public library, and in being encouraged to bring home loads of new books every week. All children are owed this chance to shore their future selves with the resilience conferred by reading. Literacy is as vital to good health and wellbeing as proper nutrition and safe, warm housing.
Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus. A novelist and poet, she is a PhD candidate at the University of Otago, looking at how literature contributes to understandings of illness and wellbeing.
- Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel, (London: Faber, 1988).
- Oliver Sacks, On the Move. (New York: Knopf, 2015).
- Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air, (New York: Random, 2016).
- Brenda Walker, Reading by Moonlight: How Books Saved a Life, (Melbourne: Hamish Hamilton, 2010).