In honor of Bloomsday, today’s New York Times has an essay by Colum McCann about how reading Joyce’s Ulysses helped him come to know his grandfather, who died when McCann was 10. It’s a nice expression of the transformative powers of fiction:
The messy layers of human experience get pulled together, and sometimes ordered, by words.
Soon my grandfather was emerging from the novel. The further I went in, the more complex he got. The man whom I had met only once was becoming flesh and blood through the pages of a fiction. After all, he had walked the very same streets of Dublin, on the same day as Leopold Bloom…
The book carried me through to the far side of my body, made me alive in another time. I was 10 years old again, but this time I knew my grandfather, and it was a moment of gain: he was so much more than a forgotten drunk.
Vladimir Nabokov once said that the purpose of storytelling is “to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade.”
This is the function of books — we learn how to live even if we weren’t there. Fiction gives us access to a very real history. Stories are the best democracy we have. We are allowed to become the other we never dreamed we could be.