Exactly ten years ago, when I first picked up Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit: An American Legend as a horse-crazed nine-year-old, I was spellbound and speechless before a story I thought had no equal in history. Laura herself thought the same, explaining, “When I finished writing my first book…I was certain that I would never again find a subject that fascinated me as did the Depression-era racehorse and the team of men who campaigned him.” Then she met a man named Louis Zamperini and penned her long-awaited second book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.
If there is one book that you read in your lifetime, let this be it. If there is one book that is included on the American school curriculum, let this be it (replace the Great Gatsby, Macbeth, The Scarlet Letter, whichever). The book supersedes descriptives such as “unforgettable, “harrowing”, “chilling” or “inspiring”. Unbroken is more than a book — it is a window into humanity that 21st century Americans seldom see.
I am not as naïve as to think that after reading the [insert adjective that does not yet exist in English vocabulary] story of Zamperini “Zamp”, I will never have anything to complain about again. Reality is that suffering is relative; for a innocent child who is a stranger of pain, a lost keepsake can be the end of the world. However, I can say with conviction that my worldview has been changed unequivocally.
I realize now that I can no more say I have known human life than a domesticated cat can say he’s known animal life. Growing up in the United States, I have neither faced the prospect of my death nor been subject to misery far worse than death. My idea of agony is sweating it out in 100-degree weather while enduring an onslaught of mosquito bites. Today, I came face to face with someone who has seen humanity, and then some. Louie’s presence weighs in my heart as if I sat down with him and a cup of coffee, not simply interpreted the words on a page of paper. I am besieged by an urge to write — I feel that if I don’t put these thoughts to paper, they will harangue me endlessly.
As I lay out in the sun and finished the last chapters of Unbroken, beads of sweat gathered on my forehead, on my chest. I reveled in it — the searing heat — simply because I was not cold. On my feet, I discovered two small insect bites and I itched them, but I was grateful that there weren’t more. When I closed the book, stood, and promptly blacked out from the sun and dehydration (very slight, mind you), I calmly steadied myself and headed back into the house for water. Although I was dizzy and nauseous from lack of sleep and hours of continuous reading, I plopped myself before my laptop because I knew that my story — however insignificant — must be told, even if it is only read by a handful of people.
At the risk of sounding like a raving recipient of a religious awakening, I shall move on to the bigger picture. From today onwards, I wish to be more than a U.S. citizen; I want to be a citizen of the world. I will strive to be more than a student of the University of Michigan; I want to be a student of humanity. Where there is suffering in the world, I want to know not only what exactly people are enduring, but also how they feel. Where there is injustice in the world, I wish to be the one to risk myself to change the circumstances of others. After all, what is death but the inevitable consequence and, in a way, the definitive experience of human life?
In Louie’s tale, so exquisitely woven by Hillenbrand, one learns that death is much more important than life in understanding what it means to be human.
To Louis Zampolini.