Last December, during one of those periods of Internet-wondering that happens every so often, I came across an article on Lifehacker (one of the Gawker family of content-scrolls) in which columnist Thorin Klosowski illuminated some reasons to read fiction. While making sure to point out that “[r]eading fiction doesn’t always have the tangible benefits that science demands,” it can help us learn things like: “[f]iction teaches you that change is inevitable” and “[r]eading might help you learn empathy.” Emphasis there, I believe, on the might.
A few weeks later, I found myself confronted by another, competing claim. Bill McKibben, in his introduction to the NYRB reprint of Yaşar Kemal’s epic novel They Burn the Thistles, notes that:
Before the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, American military officers were reportedly screening The Battle of Algiers, looking for insights into urban warfare and Muslim militancy. They would have done well to hand out Yashar Kemal’s They Burn the Thistles, too—partly because it’s set in the general area we’re now enmeshed in (more specifically, in the Taurus Mountains of Turkish Anatolia) but much more because it’s one of the finest accounts anywhere in literature of a clannish peasant worldview.
Reading fiction as advance (and possibly top-notch) military preparation, so to speak. To consume the culture so as to better consume the culture.
The plot of They Burn the Thistles—and the larger arc of the İnce Memed story cycle—follows the peasant-rebel Memed as he avoids capture at the hands of the corrupt government and land-owning overlords until he can exact a modicum of revenge against (and possible promise of freedom from) his region’s oppressors. Throughout the series, Kemal reveals the lower-class, farming peasants not as a faceless mass of soulless laborers, but as a collection of humans deserving of (and, to date in the stories, not yet receiving) basic humanity.
They would have done so well.