By Maggie James
'I don't read novels,' someone once told me, his tone dismissive. 'I don't waste time with bullshit. Know what I mean?'
My response? I chose not to reply, but to deflect the conversation. Had I answered his question, I'd have done so with an emphatic negative. Apart from the comment being provocative, making it to a lifelong bookworm like me was pointless. No, I don't know what he meant about novels being bullshit. Never have, never will. I suspect anyone reading this blog is likely to side with Team Maggie on this one!
It's not that I don't understand why people don't read fiction. I do, despite my lifelong love of books. You see, I'm someone who doesn't care for music. This attracts gasps of horror from music aficionados, who refuse to believe me. 'You must enjoy music!' they tell me. 'Music is life!' For them, perhaps, but not for me. Each to their own, as the saying goes. Music doesn't feature in my existence and that's my choice. The difference between my fiction-loathing friend and me is that I'm not dismissive about what I don't enjoy. To dub all music bullshit would be ridiculous; it's a huge source of pleasure for many. I suspect that's what grated about my friend's comment. Fair enough if he doesn't enjoy fiction. But to brand all novels as bullshit strikes me as plain daft. Of course, some people pride themselves on a philistinic approach towards cultural matters, and that's their right. For me, however, fiction, especially in the form of novels, has enriched my life beyond measure.
Let's examine five ways in which great novels enhance our lives
1. They're a great means of entertainment and relaxation. For bookworms, the joy of curling up with a novel can't be underestimated. I've just finished Jostein Gaarder's 'The Castle in the Pyrenees'. The book was so good I read it in one evening, enchanted by the descriptions of Norwegian fjords and glaciers. As for guilty pleasures, I enjoy any novel by Lee Child or Stephen King, both masters of their craft. A new book to read is a simple joy, but priceless. Not to mention a fantastic way to take time out.
2. Reading keeps our brains sharp, increases our cognitive skills and boosts our vocabulary. A study published in 2013 showed that fiction enhances connectivity within the brain, especially in the area of language. Makes sense, doesn't it? As we read, we're studying sentence construction and spelling without being conscious we're doing so.
3. Books can educate us. An example is 'Sophie's World' by Jostein Gaarder. Clothed in the story of fourteen-year-old Sophie Amundsen lies a wonderful history of philosophical thinking, which teaches as it entertains. As mentioned above, I've also read Gaardner's novel 'The Castle in the Pyrenees', another educational read. This book focuses on a debate between a Christian and an atheist, examining issues such as the origin of the universe and life after death. All wrapped up in an intriguing story about the consequences of a hit-and-run accident in Norway. Education without the classroom!
4. Novels provide both social and political commentary. A great example of the former is Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird', a biting examination of racial inequality and prejudice. The book also addresses issues of class and gender roles in the American Deep South, its lessons emphasising the need for tolerance and acceptance. For political commentary, look no further than George Orwell's 'Animal Farm'. The book is an exposition of Russia under the Stalinist regime, in which Orwell fuses politics and art in a chilling study of totalitarian rule. From such novels, especially when read from a different historical perspective, we can learn valuable lessons.
5. Novels, especially the classics, add beauty to life. Lovers of Thomas Hardy's books thrill to his lyrical descriptions of the Dorset countryside. Fans of Charles Dickens marvel at his skill in creating characters, such as Wackford Squeers and the Artful Dodger. In adding beauty to our lives, books also contribute to our cultural heritage. Imagine a world without literature. For me, if not my fiction-hating friend, Earth would be a planet lacking the wonder that novels provide. Events such as the destruction of books under China's Qin Dynasty or the Nazi book burnings are akin to sacrilege for me. Works of cultural significance trampled under the boots of repressive regimes - it's no coincidence that the need to control and a hatred of the arts often walk hand in hand. Literature, when allowed to flourish, makes an invaluable contribution to our lives. As does music, for those who love it!
Let's hear from you!
What novels have you found educational? Do you agree that books enrich our lives and add beauty to them? Are there any roles books fulfil that I've not covered? Leave a comment and let me know!
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