by James M. Jackson
“Novels are excluded from serious reading…not that novels are not serious…the reason is that bad novels ought not be read and that good novels never demand any appreciable mental application on the part of the reader. A good novel rushes you like a skiff down a stream, and you arrive at the end perhaps breathless but unexhausted.”
~ from How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett
Most of my nonfiction reading relates to history, science and nature, or writing. I do sometimes wander beyond those areas. Family gives me books for birthdays and Christmas; sometimes a friend recommends a book; sometimes I immerse myself in learning something more deeply (hence the current collection of books on writing); and sometimes a title calls out to me. “You should read this,” it says as I browse a bookstore or check out the you-might-also-like-this recommendations Amazon provides.
Over decades, I’ve come to realize those random choices are often my subconscious grabbing my attention: “Yo! Jim,” says the repressed me. “You got a problem, man. Read this book and see if you can fix yourself.”
I don’t remember the exact circumstances of my deciding to download How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett. I have a vague recollection of hearing about it from an article or blog or maybe a TED talk. In any event, it’s free on Amazon, and I downloaded and read it in early 2014.
I suspect I was not happy about how I was spending my time. [Note this was well before the recent election cycle, about which I admitted in a previous blog that I had become obsessed with the perpetual news (and non-news) cycle. As interesting as the book may have been, it clearly didn’t inoculate me from screwing up again.] I know to concentrate my attention on the available minutes of the day, not the ones over which I have no control. I also know to challenge myself to recognize which things I do not have control over and concentrate only on those I do.
But, I’ve digressed. When I read the book thirty months ago, I kept the Bennett quotation tucked in a separate Word document. Today I will reply to the long dead Mr. Bennett (1867 - 1931).
On this thinking, Mr. Bennett, you have fallen into a left-brained trap, positing that without effort, there can be no measurable change. If there is no measurable change, then no change has occurred. If no change has occurred, you have wasted your time. As time cannot be replenished, wasting it is not a good thing. Therefore, you conclude, reading novels should not be encouraged.
Mr. Bennett seems to suggest people should concentrate their efforts in accumulating left-brain-pleasing experiences. He misses the importance that novels can and do leaving lasting impressions—even deeply embedded feelings—that one cannot experience from reading history.
I have had to stop reading a well-written novel long enough to wipe tears from my eyes. I’ve felt furious at the mistreatment of fictional characters. Seeing the world through fictional characters’ eyes has provided me a better insight into worlds I cannot experience as a white male in the United States. I don’t believe I am alone in this, and you can inform me in the comments if I am wrong.
Mr. Bennett misses another key point by focusing on exhaustion as his measure of success. Athletes know that to strengthen muscles they must push them past a comfort zone and then allow them rest and recovery. Many scientists, inventors, and creative types know that they often gain key insights by allowing their brains rest from working on a problem. Is there any reason reading a thriller or romance or fantasy is less beneficial than other ways of taking a break?
Not for me. I’m interested in what y’all think.