“There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure truth.”
― Maya Angelou
Since her death last week, Maya Angelou’s many profound quotes have been circulating on the internet. The one that struck me the most forcefully was this statement about truth and fact. At once I felt a kindred spirit in Angelou. I have always loved fiction, preferring it to non-fiction for many reasons. Stories are enthralling, and the characters born out of writers’ minds are so fascinating. There is nothing I love more than a fat, juicy novel that I can spend hours absorbing. Non-fiction, on the other hand, is more utilitarian. I associate it with school studies or simple information-gathering.
I am not negating the importance of facts. As an aspiring journalist in college, I learned to gather and disseminate facts, to be objective and to write simply, without flourishes or figurative language. Each day I read the newspaper (Yes, the actual paper, not a digital version!) and try to keep abreast of what is happening in the world. And I would certainly want the facts if I were confronted with a medical diagnosis or a lawsuit.
But facts can be misleading. Commentators and politicians can use selective facts to support their positions while leaving out important contradictory evidence. In fact, studies have shown that most people pay attention to evidence that supports their world view and discount or ignore facts that conflict with it. More importantly, facts often don’t get to the heart of a matter, to truth with a capital “T,” if you will.
A good example of the difference is the approach to history. History textbooks and non-fiction accounts of historical events contain a wealth of knowledge. But good historical fiction can bring history to life. I recently read the novel The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. It is the intertwining story of a young white girl living in an upper class Southern family and the young slave girl she is given for her birthday. Through the novel, I learned many things about antebellum South Carolina and also the abolitionist movement led by Quakers in the North. But I was also able to feel the shame, heartbreak and triumph of people trying to overcome the terrible scourges wrought by slavery. The novel is based upon real people and events from the 1800s, yet I don’t think I would understand the reality of their situation any better by reading non-fiction accounts of their lives.
Throughout history human beings have attempted to search for Truth. In the New Testament, Pontius Pilate ironically and rhetorically asks Jesus, “What is truth?” as if to say, “It’s all relative.” The Romantic poet John Keats asserts in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty./That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” As for myself, I will continue to look for glimpses of truth in the beautiful world of literature.