Can Fiction Educate As Well As Nonfiction?

by James Wallace Harris, 11/2/22

I turn 71 this month, and getting older is getting harder. Being old is nothing like I imagined. That’s a problem for me because I like to be prepared, and being prepared requires anticipating the possibilities.

Last year I read The Art of Dying Well: A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life by Katy Butler. It’s a useful handbook giving tips about healthcare for the elderly, plus Butler relates plenty of stories about people she met who were going through a variety of issues as they approached death. I learned a lot from her book. People tend to decide between two paths toward the end of life. Some want to take advantage of everything medicine has to offer, and others prefer to take a gentler path, choosing less aggressive medical procedures, or even refusing treatment. One of the best lessons of the book is doctors will go to extremes to keep you alive unless you learn to say no. And for me, the important part of The Art of Dying Well is learning when to say no, and how to decide what you want before you lose control of your situation.

When I read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout this week, I was surprised by how it inadvertently taught many of the same lessons. Although it’s called a novel, it’s a collection of thirteen interrelated short stories, and often those fictional stories were like the case studies in Butler’s book. Olive is in her late sixties at the beginning of the book, and seventy-four at the end. I was particularly horrified by the final accounts of Olive’s husband, Henry.

Olive Kitteridge is a book that offers a series of intense emotional impacts. And most of them made me think about how I will deal with a particular issue if it should happen to me. Henry’s fate is the hardest to contemplate. One day he and Olive are going to the grocery store and when he steps out of the car, he falls to the ground. He’s had a sudden stroke that leaves him blind, unable to walk or talk, and probably has left him deaf. He’s put in a nursing home where he needs to be cared for like a small child. To me, that’s scarier than anything Stephen King ever imagined. And how do you prepare for something like that?

It would help to have all the proper legal paperwork ready. And it would help if others knew your wants. That’s covered in the Butler book, but it’s covered in more detail in Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life by Louise Aronson. Aronson is a doctor who eventually got into geriatric medicine. Her book is heavier than The Art of Dying Well, with more clinical details. It has a tremendous wealth of information, but I found Aronson’s structure for her book somewhat disappointing. Elderhood has a clearly laid out structure but Aronson doesn’t always stick to it.

Both nonfiction books are excellent handbooks for anticipating getting older, especially for the medical and legal details. But the novel, Olive Kitteridge, was also excellent for the same purpose, but in a different way. I guess it’s a handbook for philosophically preparing for our last years. Some of its most important lessons were about communication, or more precisely, the lack of communication.

Much of the novel is about waiting until it’s too late to express our true selves. One of the strongest reasons why people want an afterlife is so they can meet up with dead loved ones. Is that because we really want to tell them something? Or that we really want to ask them something? I know that’s true for me.

I loved reading Olive Kitteridge enough that I’m going to read more Elizabeth Strout books and have already started on Olive, Again – a sequel with additional short stories about Olive Kitteridge and the people she knew. I’m also keeping The Art of Dying Well and Elderhood to reread again and again as I get older.


12 thoughts on “Can Fiction Educate As Well As Nonfiction?”

  1. “ I’m . . . keeping The Art of Dying Well and Elderhood to reread again and again as I get older.”

    And there lies one of the problems with getting old—the assumption we all have that nothing major will strike today or tomorrow, but that it will all unfold slowly at some distant point in the future.

    1. That’s true. Waiting is like playing a game of chicken and losing. We need to at least say everything we want now and have the proper legal paperwork completed. The other preparations are harder to talk about publicly. One that I learned from one of the nonfiction books is when to not call 911.

        1. If you’re intrigued about when not to call 911 it’s when you want to die at home. That’s important to some people. My mother was fanatical about it and it’s my own wish too.

  2. Have heard that if you have your living will all set, stating you do not want to forced fed, as an example, but if you are in a religious owned nursing home, they will do it anyway. Those of us with no one to be our health care proxy due to being widowed, no children and friends who have passed on, are in a precarious situation.

    I’m all for death with dignity laws enhanced, to let us have the legal right to chose when and under what circumstances we can be assisted to die in peace. Who wants to live with Alzheimer’s for years in total dependent oblivion! Me thinks it’s for the money that can be made, keeping you alive past the due date.

    1. Doctors, especially ER doctors and EMT in ambulances are trained to jump in and save lives. So even if you’re at home in hospice care and have all the legal directives about what you don’t want if you or your spouse or neighbor calls 911 they are not going to consider your documents. Once you get to the ER and an ICU bed it gets harder to die at home. The same is true for nursing homes.

      Like you said, those of us without children will have it harder, and once you lose your spouse it gets much harder. I always assumed I’d go first but now I worry about leaving Susan alone.

  3. I love that you see the learning to be inhaled with Elizabeth Strout. Of nonfiction books a standout is Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. Yesterday I came across a note I’d scribbled to myself: “Do end-of-life stuff.” I aim to be like Doris Carnevali (still blogging at 100) and have a folder with the necessary documents stuck to the fridge. Aha! Just realised: I don’t have to have every single document done before I begin. I will take a baby step today with a spreadsheet.

    1. Linda and I also read Being Mortal when we read Elderhood and The Art of Dying Well. (Linda is my two-person book club partner.)

      I went and subscribed to Doris Carnevali’s blog. Did you follow Ronni Bennett’s blog before she died? It’s a wealth of information about aging – and it’s still online.

      I don’t have a magnet strong enough to stick my necessary documents to the fridge. What’s in that folder of yours?

      1. Did I follow the legendary Ronni Bennett? Sure did. I’m glad her blog is still online : that’s interesting. Ha! So far, just the barest health information. Name, dob, NHI number, emergency numbers for my daughters, my doctor’s name, regular meds taken (none), and a brief medical history. Actually most of that is on my phone and Apple watch, but nothing wrong with a piece of paper. Now to start a folder for all the other stuff.

  4. My wife and her Book Club have read Olive Kitteridge and all of Elizabeth Strout’s books. Many of them consider Strout their favorite writer. For end-of-life issues, I prefer How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter by
    Sherwin B. Nuland.

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