Braving the Dangers of Fiction
Nantucket Essays

Braving the Dangers of Fiction

by Robert P. Barsanti

I found myself, this spring, defending my summer reading list. Now, as an old white man, I am used to a certain sort of academic battle, and I have generally chosen the prudent retreat over the final climactic fight. The years of assigning Huckleberry Finn for summer reading, or John Steinbeck, or even Agatha Christie have gone with purple photocopies.

Modern high school students are not tolerant of the vices and prejudices of previous generations. Further, asking them to read five hundred or a thousand pages is a fool’s errand. That book will sit next to the game controller until it falls off the desk and under the table. I have surrendered the most literary of arguments: that you need to have read Jane Austen or Charles Dickens to be well-read. I waved them goodbye. Our society doesn’t believe that any more.

My twentieth-century sensibility about reading comes from the selfishness of my own world view. I can’t think of a better use of an hour than to sit on Cisco Beach in the warmth of a July sun with a book and a beverage. In the rest of my life, I need to crowbar holes in time in order to read. Other people need me and want me by their sides—there are people to pick up at the boat, buy grapes and Cheerios at the store, and then finish drying the towels for tomorrow.

A beach needs no rationalization. It is its own goal. By the time you reach it, other commitments and entanglements have been left behind like laundry. Your social media will just tick by without you. Your phone is out of range and in danger of getting swallowed by a wave. Your laptop can’t connect. The best reading room on-island gets washed by the tide and decorated by sand fleas.

So when I assign summer reading to Adam and Abergiveny, I assume that they will also be in a beach chair, wearing damp swim suits, turning pages. Work will resume the next day, their friends and parents will leave them alone, and their toes will dig down into the south shore sand. Now, I know enough to know that when my students read, they are not at the beach, nor are they without their phones, nor are they uninterrupted.

No one, not the richest or the poorest student, can sit on a beach all summer and wander through the pleasures of Dickens and Atwood. But the purpose for summer reading is to push the rest of buzzing and vibrating society away from their minds for a few hours. My students need to be able to close the doors and seal themselves into a room of their own, then throw Snapchat and TikTok out the window. An intellect needs solitude, not screaming or society.

Recently, I have been fighting about fiction. My students will read memoir, with its ever hopeful uplift and sincerity. They will read non-fiction, if it promises to teach them facts and stories that follow a similar line. We read Born a Crime because it is personal, honest, and ends with the success of the main character. In memoir and in most non-fiction, the reader remains in a protected place. They don’t need to descend into an underwater world of psychology, empathy, and murder. Instead, they can remain dry and onboard, peering at the deeper world through the safety of a glass-bottomed boat. They don’t read Trevor Noah’s story and become Trever Noah—he will always be a funny raconteur telling them his story from safety of the country club porch of the future.

Fiction does not allow you such safety. You have to inhabit the character, be it speaker or subject, and walk around in its shoes for a while. Huckleberry Finn forces the reader to confront racism because Huck is racist. Of the course of the novel, through misadventure, accident, and brutality, Huck loses the unexamined racism of his Aunts and his home.

For a reader, the realization and the shock of Huck’s racism rattles you in the comfort of the beach chair. But it takes works of fiction to get you off the dry safety of the boat and into the teeming life of the world. When you dry off from Huck Finn, you are not the same person who dove in all of those hours ago.

As such, fiction is dangerous. When you dive into that work, you don’t know what monsters you will encounter—and what monster you might find yourself becoming. Most parents and the school systems that answer their angry phone calls don’t want something as clumsy as a dead white author performing some sort of emotional brain surgery on their child. F. Scott Fitzgerald, in his white male privilege, still goads everyone with the green light ever receding into the past. Agatha Christie, with her cooling cup of Earl Grey and her scones, delicately puts the mind of a murderer in the reader’s head. No matter how many Instagram posts and Tik- Tok videos come after, the possibility of Olde English Murder remains with the reader. Agatha Christie, gentle old soul that she was, lords over a particularly nasty tidepool of life.

I don’t ask students to read fiction so that they can be serial killers, bootleggers, and racists. I ask them to read fiction so that they can develop some empathy. In Atticus Finch’s words, you need to step in someone else’s shoes and walk around for awhile. You need to get in the water, get wet, and see what animals you live with and what animal you are. People all do strange things; the only way to understand that is to get into their heads and swim around a bit.

Our world has created a generation wracked with anxiety and self-doubt, in spite of their trophies and their grades. We have kept them dry and away from shore by leading them through the museums of non-fiction with its comfortable smug distance between “what they thought then” and “what we know now.” In fiction, they have to descend into the near dark, with its bright schools of fish, its skittering crabs, and something flashing white in the depths. Let them see through the minds of others and perhaps they will discover themselves.

Articles by Date from 2012