Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sunday Salon: on being a novel reader and lover

 In two novels I've read this month (So Much for That by Lionel Shriver and Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier), the main characters have mentioned their lack of desire to read novels. It may not be uncommon to encounter people who are dismissive of novels, but I am fascinated by fictional characters in novels dismissing the genre. There's a certain amount of irony at play, to be sure, but my recent encounters are quite different and both interesting. (I'll do my best to avoid plot spoilers.)

So Much for That: A NovelIn So Much for That, Shep mentions a few times how much his retired father enjoys reading mystery novels. As he ponders what life will be like once he stops working, he muses what he might like to read, but he concludes, "maybe he wasn't cut out for novels. He's rather live a good story than read one." My first thought (full disclosure) was the famous line from You've Got Mail when Meg Ryan's character, a small bookshop owner, muses via email that
"Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life - well, valuable, but small - and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven't been brave? So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn't it be the other way around? I don't really want an answer. I just want to send this cosmic question out into the void. So good night, dear void."
You've Got MailI've always loved that line, even though I don't love the movie as a whole. For one thing, it came out in 1998 when I was a senior in high school. I remember seeing it in the theater and scribbling down that passage. At that time in my life, I was a huge reader who often commented on how things, people and places I encountered reminded me of things I read in a book. I envisioned college and adulthood providing me the opposite. My optimism as a traveler and a reader knew no bounds.

When I began to think more deeply about Shep's conclusion, however, the reader in me believes the two aren't mutually exclusive. For me, in fact, part of living a good story is reading them. The fiction I read helps shape the way I look at the world. I get told somewhat frequently that I give great advice. My immediate reaction: it's because I read so many novels. The explanation doesn't make much sense to some, but to me, it's obvious. Fiction makes me understand the perspective of others. I'm partial to fiction with multiple narrators because I love to analyze situations from more than one angle. It enhances my appreciation for life.

Remarkable Creatures: A Novel
In Remarkable Creatures, a historical novel set in the early 1800's in Lyme, England, Elizabeth Philpot and her two unmarried sisters must come to terms with their singleness when their brother gets married. Their family is well-off enough that they need not work, but not wealthy enough for the three sisters to continue to live in London. Faced with finding a less expensive place to live, the three all had preferences based on their hobbies. One of Elizabeth's sisters loved to read novels, but Elizabeth dismissed fiction, particularly the romance novels of the time her sister was partial to: "I did not need novels to remind me of what I had missed." Though happy with her life, Elizabeth would have enjoyed being married. She did not want to read about a life she could not have.

Elizabeth's anti-novel sentiment is quite different from Shep's, but both center around life and happiness. There are few things that bring more joy to my life than reading novels. I don't adore short stories, although I enjoy many of them. I also enjoy narrative non-fiction, but rarely does it provide the intellectual and emotional sustenance I get from novels. I'm wise enough to know many people do not have such a similar reaction to reading novels, but one of my favorite things about book blogging is interacting with other novel-lovers who do get it. 

For me, great novels are majestic. I love to read about the lives, thoughts and experiences of others. I welcome novels about people in different times, places and who have different means. I'm happy with my life and my level of adventure. Sure, I'd travel more if I could afford to, but otherwise, I'm content. I disagree with Shep. I want to live a good life, but I don't want to live a good story. A novel based on my life would likely be quite dull. Unlike, Elizabeth, who lived in a hard time to be a single woman, I'm not held back in most of the ways she was because she was a woman. The missing things in my life are missing because of my choice. I must ask myself, is it because I am so happy that I enjoy reading novels? Is it a luxury as it has been throughout history? As someone who has surely been blessed, are novels my reward? In a sense, they are. The librarian in me believes there are books out there for everyone, but taking the time to sit, read and ponder what you're reading is a luxury. It's one I build my life around because it brings me joy and a greater understanding of humanity and our world.

Do you love novels? Is it a luxury? Would you rather live a good story than read one?

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  1. I totally agree with what you say about learning things from other peoples perceptive, non-fiction doesn't always do this as easily as fiction.

    With reagrds to you first point about those books having main characters as non-readers - thats got to be more original than having the main character being an inspiring writer ;)

  2. I love reading novels and actually think that reading them gives me a much more balanced and sensitive view of the world and the people in it. I have become a more tolerant and fair person since becoming an avid reader, and I credit novels for all of it. I really liked this post and thought you expressed yourself on this topic very intelligently.

  3. You've Got Mail is one of my favorite movies. That passage has stayed with me since I first watched it. I love a good story in whatever form it comes. Instead of choosing either/or I would like to live in a good story and read one though I suspect I'm just reading them right now.

  4. I think we learn when we read, even when we're reading novels. Any time a story is told from a point of view that's different from yours, you learn something.

  5. What an interesting question! I almost thought I'd rather live a good story, but then I remembered that all the best stories have a great deal of tragedy in them. I'd prefer to live a simple, happy life that would be of no interest to anyone and read about murder, intrigue and tradegy in books :-)


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