The novel’s great era didn’t just coincide with the rise of the university and the specialist because of rising levels of literacy – it helped to ameliorate the feelings of anomie and isolation of the specialist. Suddenly, a growing number of workers found themselves busy in tasks that required focus that excluded others and unique skills that made it difficult to relate to friends and families. The novel made us feel less alone.
But the novel did more than provide access to the inner life of others, giving us access to the psychic space of the woman in the apartment across the hall or the guy in the next office. It reassured us that our own insecurities, lusts, petty grievances, and imaginings did not make us freaks but, instead, made us part of the human race. Everyone, as it turns out, has some kind of struggle.
And yet today, the world of reality TV and Internet confessionals – media like blogs and YouTube – now provides us with ample reassurance that our petty neuroses and animal instincts are not unique. And maybe celebrity stories and powerful video has eroded reading.
But I think that this comes with a cost. Novels force reflection that video and quick articles or posts do not. In a novel, we’re forced to project ourselves into the lives of the character. A good novel will actually kick start our own process of reflection. A novel makes our own thoughts more articulate, providing us with not just vocabulary but vocabulary of the inner life. Through a great novel, we discover some portion of ourselves.
Gaining access to the inner life by video and celebrity scrutiny, by contrast, seems to confuse self absorption and self awareness. We lose ourselves in the characters we see but we are never really forced to consider our own lives, never made to reflect.
All this to report some potentially good news. By one measure, reading is still lower than it was in the early 1980s or 90s but rose over the last 12 months for the first time since 1982. If our mindless living –invasions, spending, and eating of the last few decades - has done anything, it has certainly provided us with material enough to think about. It might provoke us to become more contemplative, more reflective. Crazy optimist that I am, I love the notion of this possibility.