Some Thoughts on the Novel

It’s a rainy Sunday in New England and I’ve spent a great deal of my morning attempting to organize my home library, and I am now starting to panic that I have so many novels I want to read, but might not have enough time. So, I started thinking about why we should spend more time reading novels and less reading non-fiction. Below are those thoughts.

I’m always struck by the amount of people I encounter who inform me that they either don’t have time to read novels, or that novels are for the summer and other holidays. In fact, it seems to be a point of pride for some people that they don’t read novels on a regular basis. These same people (and some of them are very good friends) are also quick to let me know that they are “just too busy to read novels.” I have a friend who is a medical doctor who told me that she wished she could read novels as frequently as I did. This double-handed compliment surely made a statement about the differences in our lives. What it said was that as much as she would like to read novels, she took the more important and responsible path in life, whereas I decided to keep on dreaming. I’m not naive enough to say that reading novels is the most important activity we as humans can undertake, and I also think being a medical doctor is a lot more important than my doctorate in comparative literature. Nevertheless, the arrogance and sheer stupidity that accompanies statements like “I’m too busy to read novels,” is breathtaking.

For nearly four years I chaired the Common Book Committee at Southern New Hampshire University. Under my tenure we chose our first novel, The Kite Runner. I remember that certain faculty and even some administrators expressed concern that we were “wasting time and intellectual value” by requiring that our incoming freshmen read a novel over the summer. God forbid! I should point out that we also had a majority of the faculty and administration acknowledging the importance of novels in just getting students to read. Yet, I became fixated on the (very) small minority who called our decision to use a novel in question. “For every experience,” writes V. S. Naipaul, “there is a proper form.” Our decision to use a novel as a common book was an attempt to get more students to read and to rectify the dryness of our previous common book. And although many people condemn the novel as purely escapist and somehow less than beneficial, I would argue that we don’t read nearly enough novels, especially novels in translation.

But why should we read more novels? The novel is perhaps best suited to lend itself to multiple themes, demanding a more complex thinking process when it comes to navigating one’s way through its pages. The novel represents the ultimate horizon of language. It is, as Roland Barthes has argued, “the utopia of language.” When we read a novel we enter into a stream, or streams, of thought that allow us to explore what is possible. Perhaps more than any other form, the novel teaches us what is best, and worst, about language and our relationship to language. Reading a novel is an exercise in thinking and articulation on multiple levels simultaneously. We become more articulate, more thoughtful citizens when we engage a novel.

Aristotle makes an important distinction between the historian and the poet when he argues that the historian relates events that have happened and the poet relates events that could have happened. The historian is primarily concerned with facts, while the poet or creative writer is concerned with pure possibility. Novels tell us how to live, how to love, how to hate, how to communicate, and how to die. Long before the advent of cinema and video games, to say nothing of our current texting culture, people relied upon the novel to instruct them how to go about their lives, although they may not have known it. Aristotle’s differentiation has become more complex in the twenty-first century, but it still holds true.

As the world becomes increasingly cosmopolitan, it becomes ever more important to familiarize ourselves with different voices. Not all of us are able or willing to travel extensively, thus making the reading of literature in translation more important than ever. If the United States is to really compete in the world marketplace, and if we are to educate our children in the best possible way, she must climb the trellis and gaze over the garden wall to see what’s out there. Reading novels in translation helps us understand difference and can promote a profound sense of empathy and understanding among cultures. Quite simply, we do not read enough novels in translation. With the possible exception of comparative literature and foreign language departments, English programs at colleges and universities focus on British and American literature with just a sample of world literature. We are doing a disservice to our students and the common reader (those who are not in literature classes at a college or university) is cheating himself or herself. The recent Stieg Larsson phenomenon is a very good start to getting international fiction in the hands of the American mass public.

When we limit ourselves to reading non-fiction only, we are ignoring an essential aspect of our humanity–our ability to tell and engage in stories. Storytelling is a uniquely human quality. The novel as a form and genre is essential to expanding our capacity to reason and feel on multiple levels. So, we return to a multiplicity of themes. Where non-fiction, useful though it is, tends to limit itself to only a few themes, the novel opens the possibility for thinking in ways that are expansively rich, appealing, and revealing. In Of Gods and the World Roman historian Sallust (86-35 B.C.E.) states the following: “These things never happened, but are always.” There can be no better argument for the novel than the words of that ancient historian. As a species we need to carve out time to read more novels if we are to continue to evolve, to learn, and to care for one another on truly meaningful levels.

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