WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Commentary: Fiction is Not Frivolous

Sep 23, 2020

During these many months of living life in a pandemic, I've been thinking about what it means to read and be a reader. In times of extreme stress I find I  "can't" read. To be more precise, the escape I find that reading often provides--focusing and quieting my internal dialogue--eludes me. This is cruel. Just when I need that peace and connection and outlet the most, I can't access it.

While I "can't" always read, I can ALWAYS work. Work feels like a way to set things "right" (which is a story my brain tells me that is both inaccurate and destructive--but that's a different tangent for a different time). Luckily for me, as an English teacher reading aloud is part of my job, my work.

This last spring, when I couldn't focus long enough to read for pleasure or even listen to an audio book (a new all time low), I could work, which meant recording myself reading  The Great Gatsby for my students, my English scholars. I knew most would opt out of listening and choose to read on their own, but it felt right to give them the option. Reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's words aloud was akin to someone putting one steady hand on my shoulder and using the other to tilt my chin up--making my gaze rest outward rather than inward.

I sat on the couch, trying to find stability in the early, terrifying, dizzy stages of a global crisis by reading rich imagery about green lights and days so unbearably hot the reader knows that something terrible is going to happen. While headlines popping up on my phone alerted me to the knowledge that thousands upon thousands of people were sacrificing, and suffering and dying, I read of parties so huge they were "intimate," self deception, and the tension between loving a person and loving them as an object. I read aloud about eluding responsibility, the price paid for crafting a false identity, the destruction caused by lying, and the consequences of aligning ourselves with careless people.

Now I recognize the parallels to the headlines that surrounded us, but I didn't see it at the time. I just knew I felt better.

Finishing a chapter meant feeling more like myself. The reading steadied me, but in equal parts so did my audience--those English scholars I had spent three quarters with but no longer met in room 153. While so many things had changed, the act of opening the book and reading aloud to them had not. We were--remotely--navigating together.

And the book was the perfect one for the moment. When we read Gatsby, we know that the crash (physical and economic) is coming. We learn that as charming and captivating as our narrator can be, he is deeply untrustworthy. We learn that we have to decide who is great.

It's lovely to stand off to the side and observe the party---smug in our knowledge (even as first time readers, we know this world is unsustainable). Meanwhile from our perch on the couch we are learning that weeks before we couldn't recognize the road signs. Now we could only glance in the rear view mirror and see what was.

Fiction is not frivolous. It's life support.

"And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Molly Selders is an English teacher at Macomb High School.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.