As host of “Readers Corner,” a weekly show and podcast on Boise State Public Radio, an NPR affiliate, I interview authors about their latest works. I am often asked by listeners to recommend books in addition to those whose books I discuss on air. When I recommend a work of fiction, a typical reaction is, “Oh, I only read nonfiction. I’m really more interested in learning something ... you know, about history, business or government.”
What? You can’t learn from a novel?
Unfortunately, that sort of thinking seems to square with book sales in recent years. According to the Association of American Publishers, sales of adult fiction fell 16 percent between 2013 and 2017. The marketing research firm of NPD Group reported that print sales of adult nonfiction books rose 4 percent, but sales of adult fiction declined by 4 percent when compared to the first half of 2017. Meanwhile, in September political book sales were up 25 percent in 2018. No doubt, fiction is losing ground to nonfiction in bookstores across the land.
What’s at work here? There seems little doubt among publishers, literary agents and bookstore owners that the Trump presidency has exacerbated what may have already been an earlier trend of readers turning from fiction to nonfiction. Not a week goes by without a new tome critical of Trump and a few defending the cause if not the man.
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President Trump can’t take the rap for the entire shift to nonfiction. Publishers may also be dealing with a subtle cultural shift in entertainment as the content options for television escalates monthly, offering viewers ever more reasons to pass up buying a book. Netflix and Amazon Prime Video come to mind. Throw in addiction to the talking heads on cable who hype the latest polemic in the bookstores, and it is no wonder fiction comes in second.
Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” was way ahead of its time when it depicted a society where books are banned and any found are burned by the government. Bradbury claims he was not aiming at government censorship, as so many assumed, but at the role television was playing in distracting and dissuading people from reading literature. With the 1950s novel describing TV screens taking up entire walls, he wasn’t far off the mark as we enter Costco and watch the size of flat screens expand by the month.
So you’re tired of “truth decay” and “fake news” charges leveled at honest-to-goodness news and you need relief from those flat-screens every now and then. Perhaps you can find truth and reality in worlds created by novelists rather than cable heads talking over each other. For no matter what your impression of the novel might be — a tool for the escape artist or a narrative that captures the human experience — there is no gainsaying the historical record showing countless times the work of novelists has spurred nations to war and peace, revolution and reform.
Perhaps a great American example is when the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Harriet Beecher Stowe, visited President Lincoln in the White House during the Civil War and, according to her biographer son, Lincoln greeted her with a twinkle in his eye and the words, “so you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” Scholars dispute just what words Lincoln actually uttered, but there can be no doubt that Stowe’s novel was anti-slavery and laid the groundwork for the Civil War.
Novels have played critical roles in the lives of nations over the years, but they also lay bare the human experience with narratives that give voice to people we can never know or understand without these insights into the worlds of others. Atticus summed it up when he told Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”
Perhaps the best way to celebrate the enduring power of the novel is to buy one for a friend or relative. With Atticus’ empathy lesson to guide us, there is no better place to start than “Firefly” by Henry Porter. With refugees moving across countries and continents, what better way to understand the lives of those trapped on the trails and camps in the dead of winter and in the scalding summers.
“Firefly” is fiction written by an author who knows the territory. It is definitely a thriller. It reveals the evildoers so prevalent in the refugee underground and it brings to life the humanitarians and common folk stepping in to rescue those who have been left with nothing but their determination to seek a better life. It is as accurate a depiction of the impact on young and old as you can find on any news hour, narrated through the experience of a 13-year-old Syrian boy on the refugee trail from his home to Western Europe, where he hopes to carve out a new life for his family.
His journey and those he meets along the way will stay with the reader for some time and remind us there are those whose humanity matches ours, yet they fight for their very survival and a way of life that we too often take for granted.
Do a friend or loved one a blessed favor, give the gift of “Firefly” by Henry Porter. It may well be the best lesson and celebration of humanity you will find.
Bob Kustra is the retired president of Boise State University.
Welcome Bob Kustra to the Statesman
He’s helped lead one of the nation’s most populous states, and he made Boise State one of the West’s premier universities.
But you can just call him Bob.
That’s how Bob Kustra prefers to be known, and what most people around here call him.
Kustra recently stepped down as president of Boise State, and he has decided to become a regular contributing columnist for the Idaho Statesman. I’m pleased to welcome Bob to our team, and excited to read his observations on everything from literature to politics.
Bob will be writing from a broad base of experience. He served two terms as lieutenant governor of Illinois, after a 10-year stint in the Illinois Legislature. He also chaired the Illinois Board of Higher Education and served as president of Eastern Kentucky University before taking the helm at BSU.
Bob helped not only to make BSU a success, but also to enrich this community. You can expect to hear from him on local, state and national topics several times a month.
Rebecca Poynter, Statesman publisher