“I only read nonfiction.”
I’ve heard that more than once from a fellow reader, often accompanied by a bit of an attitude suggesting that an appetite for fiction is a tad lightweight. There is so much to learn, the implication goes. Why would you waste your time on made-up stories?
I totally cop to a fiction bias but would argue that well-written fiction helps us understand the human condition and open up to compassion and empathy. But that’s a conversation for another day.
Despite my bias, I do appreciate good nonfiction. What makes my eyes glaze over are biographies that begin with the subject’s great-great-grandparents and drone on in exhaustive detail about shopping lists, childhood illnesses and the like. Or books by political figures that start off telling a human story and then devolve into dry recitation of policy issues.
I’m looking for the human beings at the heart of every story and some kind of a narrative arc. Psychological insights are a bonus.
“Empire of Pain,” Patrick Radden Keefe’s book about the Sackler family (creators and marketers of OxyContin) and Tammy Duckworth’s “Every Day Is a Gift” are two recent works of nonfiction that I found riveting.
Radden Keefe takes us deep inside the Sackler family, three ambitious brothers born to an immigrant Jewish couple in early 20th century New York. The Sacklers, all doctors, changed the course of medicine, largely through aggressive marketing of their products (Valium, then OxyContin), to doctors, thereby playing a major role in America’s opioid crisis. In 2019, more than 70,000 people in the U.S. died from opioid overdose.
In well-reported, chilling detail, Radden Keefe describes the Sacklers’ calculating promotional strategy, driven by greed and blind ignorance of consequence. Worse still, the family has shown no remorse and, despite all evidence to the contrary, a refusal to admit, even hypothetically, the possibility of wrongdoing.
Recently, the Sacklers agreed to pay $4.2 billion toward the settlement of opioid lawsuits while still admitting no responsibility for the crisis.
With the source of their fortune largely hidden, the Sacklers were in the spotlight mainly as major philanthropists; their name adorned some of our country’s most prestigious cultural institutions, including the Sackler wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, home of the Temple of Dendur.
My new hero, after reading Radden Keefe’s book, is the photographer Nan Goldin, who, after kicking an opioid addiction, formed an advocacy group to hold the Sackler family accountable and to demand that they fund opioid addiction treatment programs. By the book’s end, the Sacklers are disgraced and widely repudiated. Couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch.
I know it doesn’t help when you’re in extreme pain, physical or psychic, to hear someone else had it much worse. Especially if that someone else pulled through with heroic grit and determination.
But if war veteran and U.S. senator from Illinois Tammy Duckworth’s recent autobiography “Every Day Is a Gift” doesn’t inspire you just a little bit, you’re a stone. The child of a Thai-Chinese mother and American Marine father, Duckworth grew up in severe poverty, literally dodging bullets as her family got the last plane out of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as the Vietnam War wound down.
Close to being homeless in Hawaii, with her father living in a dream world, Duckworth took over as the family’s main breadwinner, leaving high school each day to hustle tourists in volleyball and sell roses on the beach at Waikiki.
And that was before making it, against all odds, as a helicopter pilot, and being deployed to Iraq. At the age of 36, while serving in the Iraq War, Duckworth nearly died when a rocket-propelled grenade tore through her helicopter, immediately vaporizing one of her legs, destroying most of the other and mangling her arm.
Oh, I forgot to mention her also getting a doctorate degree. And giving birth at 50.
I recommend keeping a stack of Duckworth’s book handy. The next time your husband or wife or child or grandchild whines at you about why they can’t do something, press a copy into their hands. It’ll do wonders.