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Sunday, June 18, 2017

On Reading Novels

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.


Julie Tollefson said...

A glance at my shelves tells me our stacks and stacks of books at home are roughly evenly divided between nonfiction (heavily weighted toward nature and travel) and fiction (an eclectic mix). Last summer, when we were preparing to visit Australia, my husband studied field guides to the animals we would encounter. I read fiction - the classic Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay and an excellent collection of short stories by Tim Winton, among others. I think the combination gave us insight into both the land and culture. Plus I found the fiction downright enjoyable.

Jim Jackson said...

Julie -- sounds like you have a good allocation of responsibilities in preparing for your travels!

~ Jim

Gloria Alden said...

Jim, one of the advantages my belonging to two book clubs is that they often pick books I've
not heard of, or have heard of but might not read. One of my book clubs just met at my house to discuss "All Quiet on the Western Front." A fictional account of WWI written by a man who fought in that war. Another book I'm currently reading is a nonfiction book on the best seller lists; "A Good Man with a Dog" - a game warden's 25 years in the Maine woods. I'm learning so much from reading that book, and how dangerous a game warden's job is. But mostly I read mysteries. Recently I read someplace that research showed readers of fiction tend to be more empathetic towards others and less likely to be judgmental and more sympathetic towards others. Like you I often shed tears when someone dies that I liked in the book I'm reading.

Jim Jackson said...

Gloria -- I've read about the empathy research as well (although I can't remember where).

~ Jim

Grace Topping said...

I've often heard people say that when they had a problem they couldn't solve, when they decided to put it aside for another day they often awoke with a solution to the situation. Apparently, our unconscious mind goes to work when we sleep. So any time we take a break from something, it has to help.

Tina said...

I remember that empathy research too -- one of the points the authors of the study made deliberately (but that many media reports completely messed up) was that while the empathetic effect was limited to a certain type of novel (one that was sufficiently complex) it was NOT limited to a certain genre. Mysteries were as fine as "literary" fiction at creating more caring readers.

So I agree with you, Jim. Read much, read widely, read on.

Shari Randall said...

This reminded me of a news story. An administrator of a state education department decreed that the children's curriculum would include more nonfiction and less fiction. He would have been buddies with your Mr. Bennett, who also misses one interesting fact. When we engage with fiction, especially long form fiction, our minds must hold so many (metaphorical) balls in the air and engage with the plot in a complex way for a long time - a very particular and difficult mental task. In these days of short attention spans, that's a good thing.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Like Julie, I read or re-read mysteries set in places I'm going to visit. Reading fiction immerses me in a setting, language, and culture in a way a guidebook or movie does not.

When I visit a museum, I read about pieces in the collection ahead of time. When I'm there, I enter the artist's world and absorb the work.

Jim Jackson said...

Grace -- I think I have always relied on my unconscious to provide answers or at least alternatives.

Tina -- Yes, I recall that detail now that you mention it -- any only those who don't read good mysteries dismiss them as simple.

Shari -- That's sad -- as though one shouldn't be exposed through enough nonfiction in science and history (and that said by someone who loves science and history).

Margaret -- You guys are so much more prepared travelers than I. When I go to a museum, I rarely know what to expect!

~ Jim

Kait said...

Oh, my, Mr. Bennett missed so much. A good novel requires as much research as a good non-fiction book, albeit without the footnotes and appendix. A good author seamlessly weaves the research into the book creating a world where the reader knows the researched knowledge without being taught and hopefully igniting a readers personal curiosity. Left and right brain can coexist quite happily in fiction.

Good blog, Jim.

Jim Jackson said...

Kait -- Mr. Bennett became a novelist, so he may have come to see the error of his thought. But, he didn't issue a revised version of How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day that changed his statement ...

~ Jim

KM Rockwood said...

I think reading novels can be a very deep experience.

Before we have visited out-of-the-way places, my daughter & I have tried to find translations of appropriate fiction written by those who know the area. It has proved to be a tremendous boon in understanding many of the things we see and experience.