Media & Culture | Reviews

Companion books

How pairing fiction and non-fiction develops both information and empathy.

While most people can relate to the idea that a book can be a companion, books can also act as companions to one another. In my role as a vice principal last fall, I observed an eighth grade teacher leading a study of a verse-novel that begins in war-torn Vietnam called Inside Out and Back Again. She wisely introduced non-fiction texts in the form of news articles to add depth and understanding to the history and culture essential to the story. That was an early step in my consideration of the way fiction and non-fiction texts can complement each other.

In the West, we tend to have a strong divide between factual information (non-fiction) and make-believe stories (fiction). I’d like to suggest that pairing non fiction and fiction serves to deepen one’s understanding of an aspect of life by engaging our minds and hearts more holistically. I offer some examples to illustrate how this might also work for adults.

The first non-fiction/fiction pairing for adults I’d like to put forward deals with less typical ways of perceiving the world. Temple Grandin’s informative Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior comes from her personal experience with traits of autism and her passion for animal science. She explains how domestic and wild beasts sense and interpret their interactions with their environment and with humans. A brilliant academic, Grandin nevertheless explains concepts in a simple way for those not as well versed in her field. In contrast, the fiction book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon puts the reader in the shoes of a teenage boy whose habits and interpretations of events seem odd to most people. While Haddon has been criticized for presenting a character with a form of autism without having done adequate research, it is also true that the story is sympathetic to the main character Christopher and widens the reader’s understanding of how a neurotypical response to events is easily taken for granted. Engaging the head with information and the heart with empathy enables the reader to have a richer understanding of the subject than by reading either two works of fiction or two informational books on the same topic.

The second pair of books explores the theme of confinement and the devastation caused by secrecy. Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland is a first-person account by two of three women held captive for years by an evil man. Between segments told by survivors Amanda Berry and Gina deJesus, information about the women’s families and about the lewd captor provide a documentary lens for their story. The difficult story is framed with hope – the women share that prayer and holding onto God’s existence enabled them to not only survive brutal conditions but also forge a quasi-normal environment for the daughter Amanda gave birth to and homeschooled in this setting. A possible fiction companion to this book is the Young Adult novel Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix. In this story (and its continuing series), a third child has to remain hidden in a totalitarian regime that has the strict limit on two children per household. Third-born son Luke gradually discovers why he cannot go outside like his brothers and tries to break free against family and societal obstacles. When reading a fictional account of confinement, the reader can suspend disbelief and find entertainment in the suspense and terror spun by the author. When paired with a true story, the realism may inspire a more active and compassionate response to contemporary injustices.

Unexpected Companion Books

Recently, I have also read two pairs of books that became companions through serendipity – they would seem to be unrelated, but they were mutually enlightening. Genesis for the Rest of Us was co-written by a parishioner, John R. Little, and his pastor Darrell Bierman, from Ayr and Cambridge, Ontario, respectively. Despite over 600 pages that alternate between a fresh translation of the text of Genesis from the original Hebrew and commentary on each section, I had trouble putting this book down. At the same time I was listening to the audiobook Perelandra by C.S. Lewis. The plot of this science fiction book centres around a creative retelling of Genesis 2-3, where a perfect planet populated with “the lady” and “the king” is subject to a tempting force in a scientist possessed by evil (the “unman”). The short account of Eve’s temptation in Eden as told in Genesis is extended in Perelandra, where the lady faces a protracted and coordinated attack on her loyalty to Maleldil (God). On the other hand, Little’s commentary on other incidents in Genesis highlights instances of temptation, evil and spiritual warfare where I had not noticed them before. Both books helped me to consider temptation and obedience from different angles and to appreciate the depth of biblical narrative.

Two other books became companions to me and to each other in an unexpected way. For nearly a year, I had been ploughing through Robert Putnam’s landmark text Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000). This spring, I was determined to complete it. This in-depth sociological study of what Putnam calls “social capital,” the vital but non-economic connections between people that makes society function at its best, requires full concentration. Bringing together surveys and studies over many decades, it paints a picture of how social connections are being lost and theorizes about factors pushing this trend in the United States. Meanwhile, I had selected an audiobook Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck, acting on a recommendation received some twenty years ago. Though best known as a novelist, Steinbeck claims to be documenting a 1960 road trip with his poodle to regain his sense of America. The author concedes that his travelogue is non-scientific; in research terms, it would be an ethnography based on encounters with individuals in various American states.

The uncanny connections between two books written forty years apart and the daily newspapers of 2020 are the themes of political polarization, the decline of small towns, human loneliness and racial tensions. The most striking connection became more poignant after May 25, when George Floyd’s murder became publicized. Steinbeck writes almost prophetically when anticipating an upcoming leg of his journey, “I faced the South with dread. Here, I knew, were pain and confusion and all the manic results of bewilderment and fear. And the South being a limb of the nation, its pain spreads out to all America. I knew, as everyone knows, that true but incomplete statement of the problem – that an original sin of the fathers was being visited on the children of succeeding generations.” Putnam’s words likewise speak to current events: “The parts of the United States where social trust and other forms of social capital are lowest today are the places where slavery and racialist policies were most entrenched historically.” Not only do many conversations and musings in Travels with Charley illustrate the findings of Bowling Alone, but its interesting storyline motivated me to press on and complete the dense sociological text.

As a reading teacher, I have become convinced that encouraging students to make connections between the book they are reading and previous material they have read improves their comprehension and strengthens brain connections. By recognizing connections between books that have companion qualities, adults may also find greater enjoyment and insight from their reading.

  • Harriette Mostert is a teacher and writer who lives in Kitchener, Ontario with her husband, three teenage children and a very special tenant.

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