Okay…..I’m picking up a theme that a couple of my blogging colleagues did on “summer reading.” And in light of the recent passing of Gore Vidal, I’ll talk about some of my favorite novel reading over the summer. On the news last night, an old interview was shown where Vidal was mourning the loss of the novel and a reading public. What do we lose when we lose the art of reading a novel?
We lose the wonder of multiple stories that are contained in good novels. With multiple stories, we meet a variety of characters whose lives are intertwined. We know these characters because of how they are described by others, how they appear in novels, what they do, and how we respond to them. We lose the ability to pay attention. Good novels require us to pay attention to details, even as we wait for the element of surprise. We have to suspend judgement as we anticipate the plot to unfold and for characters to develop. It takes time to attend to a good novel, something that is diminishing in value in our fast-paced culture of the quicker the better. Good novels invite us into new worlds. Some of these worlds may be completely new to us; others are familiar yet unknown in terms of the new angles and perspectives that are offered. Good novels place stories in contexts, introducing us to histories and events and the significant ways in which they shape people and propel people to act. Good novels remind us that every person matters in the story.
Two novels that have done this for me this summer are by the same author, and continue the same story. Luis Urrea (www.luisurrea.com) is a novelist I discovered based on reviews of his books in Cleveland’s paper, The Plain Dealer. I have been transported by The Hummingbird’s Daughter and Queen of America which tell the story of St. Teresita, the daughter of a wealthy Mexican landowner and one of his poor Indian servants. These novels have it all: political intrigue, discrimination, immigration, faith, church, fame and fortune, murder, extended clans, marriages good and bad, racism, dislocation. They have both forced and helped me to pay attention to details, plots and sub-plots, context, histories I thought were familiar but were sadly not. They provide a much needed window to “read” current events that continue to tell the stories of dislocation, racism, sexism, immigration, refugees feeling from political turmoil and fear. These books remind me that every person matters in the stories of our lives, whether they are Syrian refugees, immigrants, victims of human trafficking, the poor and oppressed, the often oblivious wealthy, the extended members of our own clans, or service workers. Their stories are part of our stories if we choose to read and listen. Novel reading makes for better readers of our own contexts and the stories of others. It is an art that is desperately needed today.