It's a funny little habit, disappearing into a pile of dead, shredded, pressed and processed tree, following little inkmarks some other person put down, in a very particular order, so as to evoke an utterly insubstantial world that is different from the one you're in and exists only behind the eyes. Yet this strange tradition has commanded women and men for hundreds of years, and in verbal form, without the ink and tree bits, for thousands. Why does fiction have such a hold on us even in an era where stories are shifting from page to screen, even when they must compete with shorter-attention-span urges like Web surfing, text-messaging, Face-Booking, and in this particular time more than ever, the simple acts of making a living in the real world?
As an unabashed and passionate lover of writing and reading fiction, I have to guess that the answer is two-fold: first, the architecture of the human brain responds to story. We live our own story every moment, creating and recreating the narrative of who and what and where and how we are every few seconds. We are our own protagonists, and our life plot is a tragedy, a comedy, a trial, a triumph, a gut wrencher, a tearjerker, and sometimes even a thrilling page-turner. We are, in short, accustomed to taking cues from the outside world, filtering them through a neural network, and writing our own novel inside our head.
Sometimes our own life narrative is either unsatisfying, unpleasant, insufficiently riveting or simply needs to be reflected in the context of another to be properly understood. That's where a good book comes in, and more specifically a good novel. Sure, school classes, non-fiction books, online articles, even blogs can help us make sense of an increasingly complex world, but they do so by appealing to the logical side of the brain not the part that crafts our internal life story.
There is also the emotional part of us. Along with the spiritual part, the metaphysical part, the philosophical part, the part that yearns for a connection to the Void, to God, to Creative Intelligence, Natural Design, and the part of us that years for a deeper connection with the events and people in our lives, our emotional dimension requires the resonance of a really good novel--not a piece of escapist pulp, although pulp has its place, but a novel in which another world is rendered so convincingly that it reveals more about our own.
It's an active getaway. Unlike passive varieties of entertainment, the good novel does not leave us numbed up, dumbed down, mentally impoverished, weakened or intellectually dead. Most vices and addictions take and take from us until nothing but a dry and dissipated hulk is left; a real novel, by contrast, lifts us up the moment we commence reading it, and then drops us back to Earth not in the same spot we were in when we left, but miles away in the same armchair with a fresh perspective on everything we see, hear, touch, smell and taste. Our motherboard is rebooted by fiction and our processor refreshed. It's an overhaul of the soul processed in a paper wrapper, this business of novel reading, and without it even the most wonderful life can get a bit stale.
The rise of the Internet is inexorable, and the way it pieces all of us together into a gigantic new network of planetary consciousness is a wonder to behold and may yet end up helping to save the Earth from the ravages of our physical existence. Yet for us as individuals, the virtual world of the Web threatens to replace reality rather than deepen our understanding and experience of it. The same technology that weaves us together as a species simultaneously disconnects us one from the other.
That's where a good novel comes in. The novelist creates a virtual world too, and its technology is no less dazzling -- what better measure of supreme engineering than to execute a function brilliantly but in the simplest possible way -- yet when we leave it our understanding and appreciation for the physical world is enhanced rather than blurred, or commitment to life strengthened as opposed to diluted or exhausted. Novels don't compete with the real world, though those of us who love them could and have been accused of feeling they do, but rather intensify the act of living.
Make the time in this go-go world to grab a good novel and settle down with it for a while. Enjoy the peace and quiet the experience provides. Look up the words you don't understand, strive a bit to follow changes in tone and perspective, follow a good author's lead through a universe of her creation. Chuckle at the glorious irrepressibility of human creativity, a power that bubbles up, as the history of literature shows, in the most challenging times and places. See if you don't emerge from the experience satisfied, deepened, wiser, more insightful, relaxed and on-track. See if life and art don't blend to make it even better to be alive and kicking.