Sunday, March 18, 2012

Other Worlds But The Same World

Reader of Novels by Antoine Wiertz 

Between my mid teens and late twenties I read a great many novels. There really is no better way in which to explore the heads and hearts of other people, to discover their strengths and weaknesses, their vices and virtues, their ambitions and motivations, their doubts and desires, their hopes and longings, their faults and failings, their dreams and aspirations, their innermost thoughts and feelings, their secret interior spaces.

Some of the best novels nudge us towards thinking about ethics and morality, and may help us work out our own personal mode of living. They can also be historical documents, capturing a society, a culture or a world of a quite specific time and place.

Although I still read novels, I don't read as many now as I used to, as my scope of interest has widened as I've got older; and I now intersperse novels with books of biography, poetry, travel, natural history, philosophy, religion and spirituality.

However, there are many novels I would still like to read — too many. I still haven't finished Tolstoy's War And Peace, Proust's In Search Of Lost Time or Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. I love all these epic works, but sometimes other things just seem more pressing.

Reading novels makes you feel more human and less alone, I believe. It's a way of linking hands, albeit temporarily, with the rest of humanity, and realising that other people are quite like oneself, with the same problems, the same inadequacies — and the same desire for transcendence.   


  1. My experience has been similar to your own. Reading novels earlier in my life made me "feel more human and less alone," as you say, and led me to believe that there were many others who were on—or had been on—similar journeys. The novelists and their characters were often the intimate friends, mentors, and confidants that I could not find elsewhere in life.

  2. There is little quite as special as finding like-minded thinkers in novels. I agree with all you've said here and still prefer novels over any other pastime.

  3. Although I've developed a preference for poetry as I've aged, I think novels have helped to develop a much greater sense of empathy with others. It's hard to spend that much time inside their heads and not empathize with them. No better way to "walk a mile in someone's shoes" than to read their mind.

  4. One of the mixed blessings of modern life for me is the way computer time has eaten into what used to be novel-reading time. I've only read one novel - almost! - in my three months or so in Korea (Defoe's 'Plague Years' - and when I started it, I assumed it was a memoir!) but have spent at least three-four hours on this damned laptop each day. I also believe my reading speed has dropped since I was in my late-teens/twenties. Blame the computer, or my hedonistic youth with all its sacrificed brain cells...

    But I persist, because novels are one of the delights of being human!

  5. I go in and out of reading novels, but when I seize upon a great one, I wonder why on earth I ever stopped. Then I read a less than great one, and I remember why.

    Yet of great ones there are many, and I have many yet to go. War and Peace I've actually read (twice, a rare occurrence), then, on a long car trip, listened to the BBC Radio play version (fabulous, that was). I love that book. It has everything.

    Little by little, I keep hoping to work my way through more of the "greats," at least, but oh, how distracting life can be! One novel I recently re-read (in conjunction with preparing a post, no less) was Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red. It was every bit as magical as it had been the first time around. Sitting with a book quietly, becoming immersed in a world that is so fully realized, yet so other--there are few experiences in life as worthwhile.

    So, perhaps I should listen to myself and get back to that book I set aside this morning . . .

  6. completely agree robert. in admiration of your reading list. i'm still trying to finish ulysses.

  7. Yes, George and Rubye, "we are not alone"!

    Loren, I agree with you very much that reading novels helps to develop "a much greater sense of empathy with others."

    Yes, online shenanigans do eat into your time, Goat, don't they? I keep thinking I should do what our blog friend am is doing, and rigorously observe computer-free days like secular Sabbaths, but I'm not sure I have the necessary will power.

    Susan! To read "War and Peace" once is admirable, but to read it twice then listen to it again on CD is positively fantastic! Thanks so much for your comment.

    Amanda — a word in your ear — no one's listening are they? Although I've read "Portrait of the Artist", and some Joyce short stories, I must admit I've never finished "Ulysses" either!