Why read novels? Is regularly reading novels a good practice?
“Just the facts, Ma’am.” Thus spoke Sergeant Joe Friday (played by Jack Webb) on the classic TV show Dragnet.
The attitude “Just give me the facts and forget the fiction” is a common attitude.
It was my own attitude in high school. I loved to read, but I didn’t read many novels. Of course, I read some assigned ones for school and a few others, but I didn’t prefer them. Instead, I read a lot of history and biography.
Why bother reading novels? After all, they are just made-up stories (narratives, tales). Why not just stick to the facts?
Here are seven good reasons.
First, there is disagreement about what “the” facts are. Our perceptions are theory-laden, not theory-neutral. Instead of perceiving what is really there and then interpreting it, what we in fact do is to perceive what we think is there.
In other words, how we think about the world influences how we perceive it. We carry our own stories into new experiences and perceive them in accordance with those stories. That’s how our understanding works. It’s cumulative.
There’s no controversy about this. Of course multiple witnesses to the same event interpret it differently! This has been shown repeatedly in, for example, courts of law and psychological experiments. In fact, for example, police officers often interpret events differently than “civilians” do.
Anais Nin: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
Reading novels is one way of reinforcing the idea that living life necessarily involves interpreting it.
Second, since we are already inventing our own interpretative stories as we go through life, it’s easy to understand story-telling as interpreting facts.
If memory serves, it was Thomas Wolfe who wrote that “fiction is fact selected and understood.”
We are bombarded with so many stimuli that it is impossible to pay attention to them all. Imagine, for example, what’s actually going on in combat: it’s overwhelming.
How should we select what is important with respect to an experience of war? Whether we experience this important human phenomenon in the flesh or vicariously, there’s no doubt that our experience will be selective. The only question concerns how well we attend to what we select.
The great war novelists such as Erich Maria Remarque, Leo Tolstoy, Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Joseph Heller, Herman Wouk and others show us how to select and understand.
Thomas Mann: “War is a cowardly escape from the problems of peace.”
Third, often the best way to get at what is true is deliberately to consider different interpretations. Our legal system is based on this kind of intellectual combat.
Because sticking to our preferred interpretations is deliberating choosing to keep blinders on, it’s the way of the fool. It deadens the mind.
Perpetually challenging our preferred interpretations is the way of the philosopher. It’s true that reading novels is not necessary to do that, but reading great novels is an effective way to do that. Our brains seem naturally attuned to storytelling.
Fourth, novels educate us.
Gary Snyder: “The world is made of stories.”
David R. Loy: “To understand is to story.”
They educate us by enabling us to live vicariously.
How can I have any hope of understanding a Native American’s life without at least walking a mile in his moccasins? What’s it like to grow up a plain-looking girl? What’s it like to live stranded on a desert island? What’s it like to be an adolescent in a war zone? What’s it like to live in prison? What’s it like to live in poverty?
Every other person we ever meet has experiences that are different from our own. Although it’s impossible to live another person’s life, it is possible to imagine living another person’s life.
Great novels stimulate our imaginations and educate us about what the lives of others are like. Furthermore, unlike psychologists, they do it in an enjoyable way!
Fifth, because of their educational function, novels enable us to identify with people who are different.
For example, I’m an old man, but, reading Jane Eyre recently enabled me to identify with a girl from another country in another century. The identification is emotional, too, and not just intellectual.
In that way, novels open us up to our fellows. It breaks down the ignorance, the prejudice, and the conceptual barriers that keep us apart.
In other words, novels enable us to love better. This is its most important function.
To love is to identify with the beloved.
If I love you, I take you to be myself, to be a part of myself. I “see” myself in you. As I begin to love you, I naturally begin to promote what is good for you just as I naturally promote what is good for myself.
It’s easy to withdraw, to close down. Reading novels reverses this tendency.
Sixth, reading novels is enjoyable. It’s enjoyable in exactly the same kind of way that listening to a masterful performance of a great symphony is enjoyable or watching great athletes in competition is enjoyable. Watching masters in action is always enjoyable.
Isn’t being “in the zone” possible for us, too? Cannot we, too, achieve excellence involving alert and masterful performances devoid of conceptualizing?
Masters remind us of what is possible. They help us to break free from the routines of our daily lives by inspiring us to do better. They provide evidence that, sometimes, hope is rewarded. Masterful performances challenge us to live better.
Seventh, reading novels can inspire us to do better. Reading novels can be motivating.
For example, if a Joseph Conrad can be in his 40’s when he began writing, why can’t I also begin to follow my bliss when I am middle-aged?
Novels always revolve around conflict, usually a conflict of right and wrong. Reading novels often provides us with protagonists who are able to rise above their stations by overcoming obstacles. There’s sometimes no more effective inspiration than communicating that idea.
(It can also be communicated by learning about the lives of the artists themselves. Novels are a modern art form; there were no novels 1000 years ago. It seems that all or nearly all of the great novelists overcome obstacles to create their art.
Many overcame physical obstacles such as childhood illnesses. Others overcame traumatic experiences such as Dostoevsky’s last minute reprieve before being shot by a firing squad. Everyone has difficult interpersonal relationships, and they all overcame those, too.)
So, there are seven good reasons for reading novels.
I am not claiming that it is necessary to spend a lot of time reading novels in order to live well; it’s not.
I am not claiming that it’s a good idea to spend hours a day reading novels; it’s not.
What I’m claiming is only that regularly reading novels is a good idea.
The effects are cumulative and subtle. Reading novels for just 20 or 30 minutes daily will, over time, improve the quality of your life.
If you doubt that and have not done it, test it: do it for a few years!
If you’ve done it, you already understand that regularly reading novels is a good practice. David R. Loy: reading novels is able to “teach us what is real, what is valuable, and what is possible.”
As always: if you know someone who might benefit from reading this post, please pass it along.
Related post: Self-Improvement.
Recommended Resource: David R. Loy’s The World is Made of Stories.