Monday, August 15, 2016

Finding ourselves in the story

It's a strange sensation to read a novel about a place you know well. It had never occurred to me, growing up in that neighborhood, that it contained the stuff a great book can be made of. The great books, as they were force-fed to us in the schools, were about other countries, other cultures, other centuries. And the duller they were, the greater they were.
Mike Royko, May 13, 1981, reprinted in One More Time

Nelson Algren
I have read hundreds, probably thousands of novels and short stories in my life. I don't recall any set in my own time and place or that really nailed me as a character. Even those Dick and Jane readers in early elementary didn't seem to be about me. I didn't know any kids who got that excited about just seeing a dog run. Yet I could almost always find something of myself in these stories, whether they were Dick and Jane, Pride and Prejudice, Crime and Punishment or The Old Man and the Sea. Good stories, or even bad stories, are about people, and people everywhere have some things in common.

Mike Royko wrote his column shortly after the death of novelist Nelson Algren, who often wrote about the same Chicago neighborhood where Royko grew up. He said he first read The Man With the Golden Arm while a soldier in Korea, and he was shocked to discover the story took place in an area he knew very well. "He had the people, the sounds, the alleys, the streets, the feel of the place," Royko wrote.

One can understand why that would be thrilling. Just finding a scene in a novel that takes place somewhere where one has visited, such as the Eiffel Tower or the Grand Canyon, can bring a sense of connection. Yet a story really doesn't have to be about us to be about us. When we experience fear when a character is in danger, compassion when a character suffers or celebratory when a character prevails in the end, then no matter who the characters are or where or when the story takes place, it is really about us.

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