I read novels as a way to think about my responsibilities without having to think about my responsibilities. I read novels about characters who create new identities for themselves, or who question the dangers of too much compromise, or who contemplate the brevity of life and the challenge of making meaning in a world of such surplus and scarcity, a world of such disparity. While reading these novels I think that I understand the questions the author is asking. I pause after a poignant paragraph, I write essays on completion of the novel that summarize my impressions of the narrative, I emphatically recommend books to anyone who will listen and enthusiastically agree with the declaration that such and such a book is just incredible. I don’t do these things without sincerity; in each moment I attend to the narrative itself I am committed to being with and in the narrative.
I tell people – family, friends, colleagues – that the value of reading Literature is its capacity for changing perceptions, for inviting questions, for provocation, challenge and for altering the way readers look at everyday life. I passionately argue for an engaged readership that sees novels as a way to explore societal ills and potential solutions, as a space to wrestle with historical and contemporary grievances and injuries, and as a conversation about who we are as people, what we value and what defines us as (ir)rational, meaning-making, meaning-seeking beings.
Any regular reader will know that what I’ve written so far can only be followed by a “but,” because this is not an era of sincerity and we are not inclined to the optimistic observations about simplistic goods. My but is not dependent on an admission of the failings of fiction, far from it; I remain earnest in my stated beliefs about the power of novels. But. For all my acclamation of beauty, power and potential, I, myself, refuse these opportunities for sustained reflection. I make routine resolutions to sit quietly with my thoughts and to ask myself what I value, what my purpose might be, what makes for a meaningful relationship. I run, I swim, I cycle and each moment I’m engaged in these expressions of body – these intense experiences of breath, heat, movement – I remind myself that I should be thinking about the Big Questions (and that I should be writing my own novel while I’m at it). In the moments on transit when each rider fills the car with their separate, silent dialogues I think I should be thinking right now. I see my days as moments when I should be thinking about myself and my community, but I instead fill my mental landscape with headphone music, cellphone conversations, internet television, food, radio, sex and sleep. This admission is not intended as an indictment of “modern society” and its ills of isolation; this admission is meant only as confession.
I confess that I do not know how to spend time with my own thoughts. I do not want to ask the questions I read in novels. I do not want to know how little substance I have available to shape an answer. I will avoid the risk of inevitable silence by cramming my mental space with all manner of other distractions, not the least of which are novels.
I read because I do not want to think about myself, my complicity in inequality, my failure to meet my own expectations of citizen engagement, my frustration with my friends, family and colleagues, my dissatisfaction with the promises made and undelivered, my hurt and loneliness, my secret belief that I’m destined for great things.
Am I sad? Do I want to quit my job? Do I love my partner enough? What are my responsibilities to my family? What do I owe my community? Why do I get paid as well as I do? How can I live in a country that denies health care to refugees and exploits the environment for economic gain? I can’t answer these questions because I won’t answer them. I won’t give up the mental real estate required to be sad. To be hurt by injustice, by my selfishness, by exclusion. Instead I’ll read stories that let me feel just a little bit, just enough to assure myself that I’m engaged and that I’m politically active. I will read novels that grant me the self-assurance to say “oh this is an important question” and to flag it as such when I present the story to someone else. As if I can take credit for the thematic heft by identifying its existence. As if I can claim depth by knowing where the deep end lies.
I read, still. I love reading because I love feeling like I’m doing something. I’m asking the questions, but only to you. After I finish this sentence I’ll close my thoughts, pick up a book, and let someone else take responsibility for giving the answers.