How many times in my life have I heard some version of this question? Most people do not read novels. Why? ‘Novels are a waste of time.’ ‘I’m not interested in stories about made-up people.’ ‘Novels don’t relate to my life.’ ‘I don’t have time.’ ‘I have far more important things to do.’
When they have time to read a book, most people choose to read nonfiction books that give them something back – something useful – like biography, history, memoir, current events, social commentary, health, science, technology, how-to. Nonfiction is what counts. You can take away something from a nonfiction book.
Besides, there are so many other forms of storytelling out there. There are movies, television shows, dramas that mirror current and historical cultures, as well as the infinite Web, which is becoming more and more a vehicle of entertainment. All the consumer has to do is sit back and let himself or herself be entertained. No demands. No labor. Big returns.
But wait. As far as film and TV are concerned, isn’t there an element missing that the old-timer, fiction, might provide? Oh, yes. It’s called intimacy. It’s called one-to-one communication. Curiously, the Web is the closest we’ve come to recreating the intimacy of the book, fiction or nonfiction, but it is an intimacy based on universal access, which may or may not be, as Winston Churchill once said, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
The novel (along with its cousin, the short story) is our most intimate form of storytelling. In it, the reader is drawn into the mind and imagination of the author, while at the same time going deep into his or her own mind and imagination, in order to give life, form, depth to the characters and actions on the page. There is no barrier between author and reader. It is not a big- or small-screen production, mirroring the vision of the director, solidified in the faces of the actors, the images on the screen. The novel is malleable, a clay-like substance manipulated by both author and reader. As with all richly textured prose and poetry, the novel changes as the reader changes, from one reading to the next. It works best one-on-one, although it can be read to an audience, or reincarnated in audio form. All story was originally verbal, so this seems fitting. But, in the end (or at the beginning), the novel belongs to the storyteller. And the imaginative response resides in the mind of the reader.
Why read a novel? Because novels mirror our lives: our thoughts, our fears, our aspirations, our despair. Lodged in the story are the seeds of self-knowledge and reflection, the kernels of wisdom that make our lives richer, deeper, more engaged.
The novel – and I refer to those novels worthy of our time and consideration – is a companion that makes us laugh and makes us weep, surprises us, inspires us, reaches out to us in our inevitable loneliness and isolation, engages our intellect, and compels us to turn the page (actually or electronically) because of the question that is always fresh and compelling for the reader: What happens next?