Learning from novels

Here, now, in the future – ever since 2010 it has seemed like the future – we are flooded with information, bombarded with it. It used to be that a significant part of a librarian’s job was finding information; now, much of it is sifting the good from the bad, the reliable from the slanted, biased, agenda-powered, and outright made-up.

The Internet, unlike books, does not come with a neat copyright page; it can be difficult to tell when something was written, let alone who by, and what that person’s affiliations and qualifications are. Much “information” is actually opinion – and then there is advertising or “sponsored posts,” and it’s enough to start calling the Information Age the Misinformation Age instead (sounds Orwellian, doesn’t it?).

This is just to say – and you can keep your plums, William Carlos Williams – that where you get your information is of crucial importance, and that it can be very hard to remember. Was it an article from The New Yorker or The Atlantic? Was it on Slate, Salon, or – please no – Buzzfeed?

Or was it, perhaps, from a novel? Over a lifetime of reading, I’ve acquired many facts from fiction. Ask me to cite my sources, and I’m as likely to mention a Dick Francis mystery novel or a Cory Doctorow YA novel as I am to mention long-form journalism from a reputable source.

Cover image of Life After LifeAbout two years ago, as I was immersed in Kate Atkinson’s mind-bendingly good Life After Life, I came across this sentence:

“[Her knowledge] was random yet far-ranging, the sign that one has acquired one’s learning from novels, rather than an education.”

I recognized the sentiment immediately. Fortunately, I’ve acquired my learning from novels in addition to a formal education, but I find that more often than not, it’s the facts from novels that stick in my mind, and I can more easily recall a specific novel than a particular article. (Another quote, from Jenny Offill’s marvelous Dept. of Speculation: “These bits of poetry that stick to her like burrs.”) Then, of course, there’s always the Internet to fact-check the fiction.

What facts have you learned from fiction?

 

 

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