The Truth About Fiction at the Library

by Bill Peak

There's a great moment in the 1999 version of “The Mummy” when Brendan Fraser asks the film's heroine (who, in the course of their first day together, has already broken him out of jail, escaped with him from a flaming boat, and shared his saddle on a camel ride across the desert) what she does for a living, and a slightly tipsy Rachel Weisz, adopting a dreamy look of intense pride, replies, “I'm a ... librarian.”

The line always gets a laugh; and, for related reasons, when I first went to work at the library I figured most people would be at best amused, and at worst bemused, when they found out what I did for a living.

Boy was I wrong.

People's eyes light up when they find out where I work: they want to know what I think of Margaret Atwood's latest book, or of the new James Bond movie out on DVD ... and have I listened to James Patterson's “3rd Degree” on CD yet? Anyone and everyone's found something to love at the library, and when they discover I work there, they can hardly wait to tell me about their passion.

But there are a few people who, as soon as they've admitted their affection for the library, find it necessary to qualify that declaration with a second: “Of course I only read non-fiction.“ From the look on their faces as they say this, it's clear they're afraid someone might judge them frivolous if they confessed to a love of, say, Shakespeare or Tolstoy, Faulkner or Hemingway.

Now don't get me wrong, I too love non-fiction. Put a copy of “Shackleton's Boat Journey” in my hands, set me down before a warm fire, and I'll be perfectly content till long after the cows have come home. Ditto for “The Hidden Life of Deer,” “Out of Africa,” “A Stillness at Appomattox,” and a raft of similar titles. But I also believe a good story—a complete fiction—can often tell us more about life and how life should be lived than any work based strictly upon “the truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”

Stories, after all, are the way we go about being human. Tell a man his wife is going to give him a daughter, and unasked his mind begins weaving a tale of Daddy's little girl—the miniature tea parties, a tom-boy phase, the first date, an eventual gushing confession of love. Tell him he has an incurable disease, and the same mind will spin out a tale of treatments undertaken, miracles achieved, a new life begun. Stories are what get us through life; with them we instruct and plan, court and woo, dream and inspire.

Peggy Lee once famously said, “I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein, and Cary Grant.” Similarly, I learned courage from Shakespeare's “Henry V,” prudence from Virginia Woolf's “Mrs. Dalloway,” justice from Steinbeck's “The Grapes of Wrath,” faith from Wendell Berry's “A Place on Earth,” hope from Ian McEwan's “Black Dogs,” and love from my father. In a foxhole on Okinawa, Dad told himself a story about the life he would lead when he got back home ... and when he got back home he went about making that story come true. With or without the encouragement of enemy machine-gun fire, isn't that, to one degree or another, what all of us do? Bread may be the staff of life, but a good story well-told ... and then lived, or lived up to ... that's what makes the living worthwhile.

So the next time you're at the library, check out our fiction section. The life you discover may be your own.