Michelle Teheux: A novel approach to living a good life
I really like reading very old novels.
While reading dystopian novels that predict hellish futures is my favorite way to spend time when I should be doing other things, old novels from the Victorian era or prior to it run a very close second.
I’m making my way through Arnold Bennett’s works at the moment, vicariously experiencing the lives of the inhabitants of small English villages in the day when most people traveled by buggy, homes were lighted with candles or gas jets, children were subject to the brutal control of their fathers and women were mostly limited to the home.
While each of us only gets one life, and one span of time in which to live it, reading allows us to enter the lives of other people living in other spans of time.
I’m living a middle-class Midwestern life stretching from 1966 to some unknown year in the future. Others I read about are living lives of poverty or wealth, in the distant past or perhaps in the future.
It’s striking to see how different — and how similar — every life is.
One can often understand more about these fictional characters with all their hidden thoughts laid bare on the page than many of the flesh and blood people with whom we spend real time, because real people usually don’t confess all their hopes and motivations and secrets the way literary figures do.
Steven Pinker suggests, in “The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” that empathy increased when, in the 18th century, the general public began to read the sort of novels that allow one to see life from others’ points of view.
I read that theory with great pleasure. It gave me an excuse to think that the thousands of hours I’ve spent reading novels rather than the supposedly more serious nonfiction wasn’t just an indulgence.
Or maybe it was just an indulgence, but it’s one I don’t regret. When you read a novel, you do feel while you’re reading it that you’re almost living another life. A very few movies try to give you the same experience, but none are long enough to quite do it.
I’ve wondered myself, many times, whether the world might not be different if more people read more novels. Privately, I’ve thought a few novels might do rigid and judgmental folks a world of good. It’s harder to hate and judge people when you understand them.
People are generally more accepting of those of other races and lifestyles once they get to know a few such people. I think the same process is possible with novels.
The problem, of course, is too many people think they don’t like reading, either because they are poor readers or because they were forced to read too many things they didn’t care for in school.
But it’s hard for me to believe that anybody doesn’t like a good story. Storytelling is such a universal human pastime that I doubt there’s any human society without a storytelling tradition.
However, I think many of the old stories from oral traditions served to reinforce a culture’s own beliefs in their own right way of living. The best novels do the opposite by suggesting that different people in different places might be right to live in different ways.
Right now I’m typing on a computer and thinking about my deadline, but before I go to sleep tonight I’ll be immersed in the difficulties of making a living in the pottery business in England in the mid-1800s. It’s a place I like to visit, but I’m glad I don’t live there.
Editor Michelle Teheux may be reached at email@example.com.