My friend Richard is a writer. We met for lunch a couple of months ago, and he told me he’s working on a novel. (So, yes, I have lunch with novelists.) We worked together on Capitol Hill many years ago, and now he’s retired from the political world and is focused on writing. He saw my post about books I’m reading and asked me why there are no novels on my to-read list.
I didn’t have a good answer. I’ve gone through phases where I read a lot of fiction and other times where I think I need to focus exclusively on non-fiction to get as much value as possible from my reading. But a great novel is more than a pleasant mental diversion. Fiction can awaken and enlighten in ways that non-fiction cannot. And a remarkable novel makes an indelible mark on my memory. There are passages from Tolstoy that evoke emotion twenty years after first reading them. (Read Tolstoy. His masterpieces may seem overwhelming, but they are simply long, not impenetrable. To the contrary, his writing is remarkable for its clarity and profound insight into the simplest of human experiences. He’s considered the greatest novelist ever for a reason.) The joyous experience of reading books like I, Claudius and The English Patient remain as vivid as recalling the greatest conversations I’ve ever had.
So, Richard’s question prompted me to add novels back into my regular reading routine, and it’s been a wonderful change. I try to read fiction at the end of the night. Novels are less likely to spark my mental to-do list or inspire brainstorming when I really need to go to sleep. I’m currently switching between two novels: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert and The Martian by Andy Weir. They are very different stories and provide a nice change of pace when I want to switch my attention, kind of like changing channels on TV for a different mood.
I’m more than three-quarters through each book, and I’m enjoying them both. I’ve also started Zorba the Greek and just purchased Memoirs of Hadrian. (I’m a sucker for Roman historical fiction, and this one gets such rave reviews.)
Getting lost in a great story is a singular pleasure. Being in a reading zone, where all else falls away, dispels distractions like few other activities. And in a distracted age such focused attention is precious therapy and a prod to more wholehearted living.
The delight and insight offered by a good story well told justify making the time for novels in your reading habit.