6. Why Read?
Finishing a novel can be like waking up from a vivid dream, one that is so real that reality itself is a disappointment. The book ends and, unsurprisingly, life goes on. However much we identify with the protagonist or agree with the author’s view of the world, the book finishes and even if we are profoundly influenced by its contents, we are forced to carry on living our lives.
There follows a period of adjustment during which the mind tries to accommodate the novel’s universe to our own: we see our lives in new shades of mystery, intrigue, adventure or the ups and downs of a convoluted plot. It could be said that this flows logically from the fact that, like a novel, our lives have a beginning and an end, but unlike a novel, there is no discernible narrative to follow: we just navigate our way through existence as best we can, and stories emerge retrospectively, as we consider the sum of our experiences – friendships and romances, successes and failures.
Perhaps this is why, as human beings, we are inherently attracted to narrative, that is, stories with a beginning, middle and end. Things make more sense if they fit a cohesive pattern: by reading novels we can distance ourselves from the frustration and uncertainty of a first-person existence that goes by from day to day, and view stories in their totality, whether in the past, present or future. A cynical man might say that this is simply a form of escapism, an attempt to soften the brutal fact of a chaotic and indifferent universe, the same sort of escapism, in fact, that breeds religious Narrative – in short, an artificial abstraction created by minds desperate for validation and reassurance.
This is a difficult argument to enter into without broaching a theological debate that is beyond the remit of this humble literary blog. However, disregarding religious discussion, it remains an outlandish position to take to say that all fictional narrative is inherently worthless because of its artificiality. Fiction may be no more than a means of filling a void, but expecting human beings to live without narrative, in one form or another, is like expecting human beings to live without eating. As Samuel Beckett said, “nothing matters but the writing. There has been nothing else worthwhile…a stain upon the silence.”