Monday, May 4, 2009

There are different ways for you to read a novel

by Tom Mach

© 2009 by Tom Mach

Believe it or not, there are different perspectives to reading a good novel. By “good” I mean novels that might stand the test of time. These don’t necessarily have to be classics such as Melville’s Moby Dick or Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. They can be authors such as Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon or David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Good novels offer something more than a basic storyline, they offer a human experience. An example of a novel which is not in the “good” category is one sold in adult bookstores where the sole purpose of the novel is to provide sexual titillation and nothing more. It may even be devoid of any meaningful storyline.

Good novels can be read in different ways. One might read it for sheer entertainment value. You read a novel for diversion, as an escape from reality. Stories that are read strictly for this purpose deal primarily with the adventures of the protagonist. People read such novels to “find out what happens” but not to search for deep, hidden meanings. Many standard mystery and romance novels fall into this category.

A person might also read a novel as an artistic accomplishment. It is analyzed from the standpoint of artistic expression just as, say, the Mona Lisa painting. Here we are looking for subtleties in writing, for nuances in the way the author has expressed an idea. In Moby Dick, for instance, we can read it strictly as an adventure of a captain trying to find and kill a certain whale. Or, we can read it as a symbolic epic where evil (Captain Ahab) is struggling against humanity (the crew) to overtake and succumb spiritual goodness (the white whale). In college literature classes, novels are typically read as an artistic accomplishment.

We might also read a novel as a form of history. Novels take place in a certain time period. Science fiction, of course, occurs in the future so there’s no real “history” there. But other novels take place either in the present or the past and both time periods have some history attached to them. When we read a novel for its historical value, we look for certain facts rather than underlying interpretations of the work. We are more concerned about what happened to a given person as opposed to a more universal reality for all mankind. Clues given in the novel will show the reader what time period the story takes place. Mentions of particular songs, certain political events, or social trends (such as the advent of the Charleston dance craze) will tell us when the story takes place. There may be historical characters involved, and a reader may want to study what occurs in that novel concerning these characters and relate them to his or her own understanding of the facts. When I wrote All Parts Together, I took particular care to ensure that everything Abraham Lincoln did or said would stand the test of intense scrutiny so that it would serve as a good source of history.

You may also want to read a novel for any technical information it may contain. Certainly Melville’s Moby Dick tells us a lot about sailing and whales. Grapes of Wrath shows the social prejudice toward migrants at that time. Medical thrillers such as Coma give us a very good idea of medical technology.

Stevens and Musial in Reading, Discussing, and Writing about The Great Books tell us that “fiction may be defined as the truth told or implied about a moral result that follows from thinking certain thoughts, holding certain values, and doing certain kinds of actions in a special kind of world.” Even though a novel springs from a writer’s imagination, it may also spring from certain universal truths. Some readers never read novels because they want to access “truth” that they believe only comes from nonfiction works

But I believe truth can also come from fiction.

--Tom Mach


Kristin Callender said...

Hi Tom,
I like your blog. I agree with you that truth can come from fiction just as much as it can from nonfiction. All fiction starts from something real and true and then is distorted into the story the author wants to portray. I have to say though that mysteries and romances, especially the more contemporary have a place in the 'good' book catagory too if they help the reader escape. Sometimes people read to get a break from truth.
Thanks for letting me know about your blog via twitter.
Kristin Callender
aka @noveltweets

Meriall Blackwood said...

I have read books that only give me plot suspense, but they're not the ones I most enjoy. The books I most enjoy are the ones that give me something something else -- powerful images, the feeling of a setting, what it's like to live in a different historical era, or an exploration of an idea.