How Barbara Kingsolver makes literature topical — from climate change to opioids to white supremacy — she’s making it personal
Barbara Kingsolver, one of the nation’s most beloved storytellers, is no stranger to big ideas. The author of seven novels, two collections of criticism, and four screenplays as well as hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2012. Her latest project, a nonfiction memoir about addiction, was awarded first place in the 2016 Book of the Month club by The Atlantic. In this essay, she looks back on her career and at where she thinks literature is going.
When I was a kid, our family moved frequently because I was always the one who read books. I’d come home from school exhausted, and my parents would help me up off the carpet and into a chair and get me started on one of the many piles of books on the coffee table. One day, before I was old enough to read, I noticed a yellow-covered hardcover lying on top. I picked it up and read the title aloud. It was The Grapes of Wrath, which I’ll never forget. At the time, my mother told me it would ruin my life if I read it. My dad looked surprised. I think he realized how naïve he was being, that this was supposed to be a good thing. But I loved The Grapes of Wrath.
I’ve loved reading in part because it was a way for me to practice not knowing. I was always a reader, but I wasn’t allowed to let myself go, to let my reading be guided by the stories I liked rather than what was written on the pages. In my early years as a writer, I was the only female among a group of boys in public schools. My mother didn’t want me to get ahead in school so she made herself the subject of her own story. She always wanted me to get straight A’s.
From the beginning, I’ve had a difficult relationship with the stories in books, which I usually find distressing. I don’t want to read books — I want to read literature. Like most of us, I love books and love stories. And I like to be inspired by them. But my relationship with literature has been so one-sided. I have not been a student of