“Every moment of serious reading has to be fought for, planned for” – Tim Parks
There is a battle going on in our culture, a boring, completely harmless and almost unnoticeable battle. It rages unobserved in public spaces and continues tirelessly in homes and workplaces. If you are paying close attention, however, you can see the little, inconsequential deaths everywhere, in certain particular and underwhelming absences: not a single book open on public transit today, not a blink of familiarity at the mention of the name “Chaucer” or “Steinbeck,” not a sidewards glance at the display cases of the one bookshop left in the neighborhood… Yes, it is a fierce and merciless war with – O! – innumerable causalities hardly worth commenting upon.
Anyone can guess whose side I take.
Tim Parks writes of this battle in a New Yorker post, “Reading:The Struggle,” naming the distractions of communications technology as our biggest enemy. Rather than aiming to defeat this Mordor-esque enemy, however, Parks takes a realist view and calls for books to adapt. I agree, but I also think that it does not hurt to remind people why reading is da bomb (literally, in this case). This will be my little contribution.
It is unfortunate, though, that we live in a post-50 Shades of Grey world, where the atrocity of this book threatens to undermine all of the arguments I plan to make below. It might be an exaggeration to say that “everything changed” after 06/11 (June 20 2011, of course, being the date of publication of 50 Shades of Grey), as hack writers were getting paid for harlequins and other literarily-emaciated genre-fiction for some years prior; all the same, that the novel works to smear the reputation of all other novels is without doubt. The only consolation I can find here is in the principle of inversion: the potential for greatness of a person, or in this case an artistic medium, is directly proportional to its potential for despicability. Thus the height to which the form of the novel can rise is equivalent to the depth to which it can sink. From 50 Shades of Grey we see this principle at work: E. L. James’ novel (and this is the reason we continue to call it a “novel” and not simply a mass of undigested novelistic upchuck) reminds us that the perversion of something great results in something far worse than the perversion of something mediocre.
On that note, here are three reasons why reading novels is unquestionably, absolutely, etc., etc., a good thing:
1) The Unwitting Cultivation of Empathy
Novels lure readers into a state of openness to another consciousness. How? Simple: by giving the reader direct access. It is a kind of heavy-handed seduction very much akin to telling a pedestrian, passing by your home as you step out of it, “psst, the house is unlocked, we’ll be gone for a few weeks,” before hopping into your car and driving off to vacation in the Rockies. The novel is an unlocked door to a mind, or, as Jane Smiley says, to a unique “theory of how it feels to be alive.” Those who understand this open books eagerly. It is not some voyeuristic lust for the private: as humans we simply find it hard to resist defenseless things.
What ends up happening, though, is something called “the willing suspension of disbelief” (Samuel Coleridge’s term). Because the whole process of reading is almost always entirely non-confrontational and is, rather, a smoothly executed “day-in-the-life” (or more probably a “year-or-two-in-the-life”) of a person, we find that all we need to do, in order to enjoy and understand, is let ourselves be taken for the ride. We let ourselves identify with the characters. This, of course, is empathy reflexively stepping in to fill and embellish our experience. “Willing suspension of disbelief” is really one aspect of “willing openness to listen,” that fundamental attitude of genuine communication and relationship.
Most interestingly, however, reading cultivates this receptiveness state of mind by linking it directly with enjoyment. To get anything out of the experience at all, one must be open to follow along with another’s thought process and motivation. This is the moral genius of the art-form: the conflation of pleasure and empathy. The ability to follow a single line of thought, a single narratival logic and coherent style, is proportional to the entertainment derived from it – and the more we learn this skill, the more pleasure-potential we release.
2) Novels are Ethical Entertainment
From the very start to the very finish – from the act of putting pen to paper, through the publishing and the distributing, to the reading and enjoying – novels are cheap and safe. A lifetime’s worth of good reading is done freely at your local library. A book is written only at the cost of perhaps an eighth of a pine tree, or a couple hundred hours of laptop power. That is all. Nothing else, nix, not-a, zilch. (Well, you might count a few thousand coffees, and perhaps some cigarettes, but I would argue those would have been drunk/smoked anyway...) Compare that to James Cameron’s $237 million budget for Avatar, or the $300 million budget for Pirate’s of the Caribbean: World’s End. And for what? A few hours of absorbing-yet-kinda-boring entertainment. An average-sized novel quadruples those hours and scratches from its cost of production the destruction to local environments, the waste from used-up movie sets, the atrocious salaries of big-budget actors and directors, the degenerating effects of celebrity culture on society, and so on.
3) The Unwitting Acquisition of Perspective
The novel teaches us to organize experience, to envision our lives in a totality. Implicit in the form of the novel is the potential for any life to be viewed “novelistically.” Jane Smiley summarizes this second point: “A protagonist is usually interesting not because he is someone special… but because something happens to him. Because the novel has to be long and organized, he has to become interesting as he deals with the thing that happens to him. This typical transformation from an ordinary person to someone worth remembering comes to seem routine and appealing, encouraging readers to see themselves as potentially interesting and their lives as potential material for novels. Thus are the moral lives of readers encouraged to develop complexity” (Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel).
Much is implied in this. What Smiley is getting at is a matter as big as myth: the novel itself is a framing metaphor in an age of individualism empty of shared narratives. Therefore, embodied in every novel is the potential of a life consciously lived as something, namely, as a story. Interestingly, the dangers of this were explored first in novels themselves, for example in Don Quixote, one of the first novels, and not much later in Madam Bovary. But where there is danger, there must also be something for which it is worth risking that danger – and the metaphor of the novel is worth the risk. Thinking of one’s life as a story is not a reduction of life’s complexity but a way of bringing out its complexity. Without any such metaphors, life is like some endless episodic soap-opera, without literary cohesion or tasteful and well-noted ambiguity!