Why Read Novels?

It was the potential for self-recognition that made Collette’s novels so compelling.
Vivian Gornick.

In a recent interview Philip Roth, the author of more than 30 novels and no doubt a prodigious reader of countless others, said he no longer reads fiction. When asked why, he replied, “I don’t know. I wised up…” What did he mean by that enigmatic comment?

In a similar vein the novelist Nicole Krauss recently expressed her concerns about the current state of the novel. “Things seem to be changing for those of us who have staked our lives on literature. The value of the literary mind appears to be in doubt; as Nicholas Carr writes in his book about how the internet is changing our brains, there is a growing suspicion that its worth has been overinflated, that “surfing the Web is a suitable and even superior substitute for deep reading and other forms of calm and attentive thought.” Krauss’s full remarks can be viewed here.

I still read novels, as Krauss does, and I am sure, like countless others, she is always reading at least one or more. Why do we readers continue to read this type of literature? Is it simply because we haven’t “wised up?”

As for me, I cannot conceive of not reading a novel, it is simply a given, a necessity if you will. And while I’ve am certain I haven’t wised up, I am equally certain that will always be true.

I have written many answers to the question the interviewer asked Roth, but Michael Ondaatje recently gave an eloquent one in his magical tale, The Cat’s Table. He was describing one of the passengers on the ship that was taking the young “fictional” Michael from Sri Lanka to England.

He knew passages from all kinds of books he could recite by heart, and he sat at his desk all day wondering about them, thinking what he could say about them….Mr. Fonseka seemed to draw forth an assurance or a calming quality from the books he read…But he had a serenity that came with the choice of the life he wanted to live. And this serenity and certainty I have seen only among those who have the armour of books close by.

The question “Why Do We Read Literature?” was also posed recently at the online magazine “On Fiction.” The magazine discusses the psychology of the reading experience; “Using theoretical and empirical perspectives, we endeavour to understand how fiction is created, and how readers and audience members engage in it.”

The authors describe a laboratory study of the responses of forty-one individuals when asked to read Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” They say that the poem as well as literary works that engage us put into words feelings that “we may not previously have been able consciously to recognize.”

A work of fiction or more precisely a passage or character enables us to see ourselves more clearly, to express a belief that we did not realize we held or an emotion that we were unaware of before seeing it on the page. The act of reading also sets the occasion for looking more closely at our beliefs and viewing them from another point of view. Yes we read for pleasure, both aesthetic and intellectual, but we also read for personal insight and those truths that might otherwise pass us by.

I think we often read ourselves into literature without thinking twice if it is true for others. Instead, the truth of any given passage or character becomes true for a reader because it corresponds to his or her experience or provides a language for it in a way that had not been available before. “Yes,” we say, “that is true for me. This is my story. That’s exactly the way I felt. I had not realized its truth until I saw it on the page.”