I happened to think reading about the Bobbsey Twin adventures was fun. It wasn’t until I was in high school, when I read the likes of J.R.R. Tolkein, Richard Wright and Albert Camus, that I was lured beyond reading for enjoyment to discover and analyze important messages about racism, existentialism, and the world overall—and in so doing to discover more things about myself. It was then I first began to understand why we read novels. They’re powerful.
In ways both small and large, novels can change the world.
A good novel, unlike a lot of nonfiction, will likely explore different sides to the same question and let a reader evaluate possibilities alongside the characters. Joyce Carol Oates said reading the novel “is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”
The power of the novel comes through that act of slipping into these other souls—walking in their moccasins.
Forbes contributors Thomas Erlich and Ernestine Fu wrote, “The human condition is complex and contradictory, layered like an ice-cream parfait, with flavors blending among the layers. A great novel reflects that complexity. We may read it several times, as we do with our favorites, and each time it is like finding an old friend and gaining new insights from that friend. We put it down with new understandings of the world around us and, most important, of ourselves.” Although I think humanity is not nearly as sweet as ice cream, I like their idea here.
In fact, studies show that reading literary fiction, as opposed to nonfiction, “does indeed enhance the reader’s performance on theory of mind tasks.” (Theory of mind, by the way, is the human capacity to understand that other people may hold different beliefs and desires, and the ability to understand this is crucial to social survival in today’s complex. In my estimation, there are a lot of folks out there who need to develop this theory of mind skill.)
Of course, great fiction can only be powerful if we, the readers, let it.
The first step is being mindfully aware of what we’re reading. Mindful awareness is the polar opposite of mindless acceptance (a brilliant phrase that I believe someone in my writing group recently coined), which is something we are all tempted to do when devouring a grocery store beach read. What I’m talking about with mindful awareness is reading closely and carefully, and taking the time to really see what the writer is saying through his or her characters, and why. Maybe it was obvious in To Kill a Mockingbird. But it’s often much more nuanced. For example, I don’t think I understood nearly enough about what Tolkein was saying the first time I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
I try to look at mindful reading this way: the writer took a risk, a leap of faith, in telling a story that he or she thought needed to be told. As a reader, then, aren’t I obligated to pay attention to what is really being said? To be willing to stand back and watch as the writer opens doors that aren’t always easy to open, and then to look, even if reluctantly, at what’s behind those doors? I don’t need to agree with the writer, or with the characters. In fact, controversy can make a story far more powerful than easy-going content. My job is just to pay attention and be open to learning.
And then, the next step for a reader to give power to a novel is to enter into conversations about it.
Conversations, whether written or oral, are what help us further process our own thoughts, and they’re also what allow us to share our ideas with others. Social media is very cool in that it allows us to be in conversation with the writer (which I find fascinating and liberating as both a reader and a writer). We can also talk about the novels, and all the questions they raise, with one another through book clubs, blogs, social media, and reader reviews (such as those on Goodreads and Amazon). Or we can just chat about them over the dinner table, or when on a hike, or sitting on the bus. It doesn’t matter when or where or how. What matters is that we’re having conversations about the novel’s ideas, and conversations are what bring about change in our world.
I’d like to point out that the power of a novel is not necessarily defined by the magnitude of the social issues it addresses or whether or not these issues are currently in the headlines. When Virginia Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway, she wrote a story that takes place on an ordinary day in Clarissa Dalloway’s life. And when she addressed those things that burdened Clarissa’s heart, they weren’t things that were openly discussed at the time, like marital and social expectations, homosexuality, and mental illness. Through this novel alone, many a conversation has been sparked—and continues to be sparked–seventy-five years after her death.
Gloria Steinem also believes that important issues can also be everyday issues. “I mean, it’s not about dictating to each other what’s important, but supporting each other in solving the ones that are in our daily lives.”
It’s the everyday issues that I’m often drawn to explore in my own writing and which I hope will open a few doors for readers. In The Damnable Legacy, I explore how a birthmother still grieves thirty years after she has placed her daughter for adoption, and about how a woman dying of a terminal illness wants only the best for the loved ones she will leave behind. In Women on the Brink, I explore a variety of heartaches and secrets that many ordinary women have had to bear.
In summary, I’m a huge believer in the power of the novel. I know many of them have changed me since I learned to be mindfully aware when reading them: by teaching me about the world, by helping me see the world through the eyes of others, by making me contemplate issues that might otherwise not have crossed my radar, and by overall becoming a better (and more compassionate) human being
If you’re already a mindfully-aware novel reader too, hooray for you! Please let me know what some of your most moving novels are.
And if you’re not, please give it a try. Here’s a list, in completely random order, of some of the most powerful novels and stories that immediately come to my mind as having had (or having the potential to have) a significant impact on our society’s values and behaviors. Of course, there are many, many more.
- To Kill a Mockingbird
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin
- Mrs. Dalloway
- Brokeback Mountain
- The Jaguar’s Children
- Jane Eyre
- All the Light We Cannot See
- The Awakening
- Defending Jacob
- Everything I Never Told You
- The Lacuna
- The Road
- The Grapes of Wrath
- Lord of the Rings
- Never Let me Go
- The Stranger
- American Pastoral
- Native Son
- Charlotte’s Web
- The Little Prince
- The Count of Monte Cristo
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
- The Call of the Wild