Recently, I had the pleasure of hearing Sebastian Junger speak as part of the Portland Arts and Lectures series. Junger is the author of several nonfiction titles, including The Perfect Storm.
On this particular evening, he spoke about war. Between 2007-2008, Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington embedded with an American infantry platoon in the Korangal Valley in Afghanistan, during a period of intense fighting. (In addition to his book War, Junger and Hetherington made the documentary “Restrepo” about the soldiers’ experiences during that time.)
During his lecture, he posed the question, Why do we read books and watch movies about war? After all (and here I am paraphrasing—Mr. Junger is far more eloquent), war is awful—full of pain and suffering, senseless death and destruction. So why would we sit in a comfortable chair and ‘go there,’ willingly?
We go, Junger says, because war taps into our most basic emotions, the most ancient themes of human existence—themes such as loyalty, courage, love, betrayal, fear, cowardice, and heroism. We go because we are hungry to connect with those emotions—hungry to better understand those themes—through story. And so, we will spend $12 to sit through a movie, or spend many, many hours reading a book, about war.
Theme is something I think about a lot when looking at a piece of writing (be it mine or someone else’s.) Theme is the ‘so what?’ of a story, the ‘why should I care?’ Theme is the bigger, more universal truth that the story dramatizes. Theme is what resonates long after you have shut a book and put it back on your shelf. We speak of themes a lot when discussing novels. I believe, however, that themes are an integral part of nonfiction writing, as well.
The best nonfiction deepens our understanding of the world. And when we are lucky, our understanding of ourselves in the process.