Sunday, October 18, 2009

Why (this) Quaker Should Not Read (some) Novels

I've been reading an 1806 book on Quakers, at A Portraiture of Quakerism. While at first it sounds as though Quakers at the time were against having any fun at all (music, dancing, reading novels, drama, gambling) the arguments there are more nuanced than I expected.

While I'm right there with the author on gambling, I didn't expect to find myself convicted on the reading of novels. Namely, that reading novels makes it harder to read nonfiction:

Their [novels'] structure is similar to that of dramatic compositions. They exhibit characters to view. They have their heroes and heroines in the same manner. They lay open the checkered incidents in the lives of these. They interweave into their histories the powerful passion of love. By animated language, and descriptions which glow with sympathy, they rouse the sensibility of the reader, and fill his soul with interest in the tale. They fascinate therefore in the same manner as plays. They produce also the same kind of mental stimulus, or the same powerful excitement of the mind. Hence it is that this indisposition is generated. For if other books contain neither characters, nor incidents, nor any of the high seasoning, or gross stimulants, which belong to novels they become insipid.

Thomas Clarkson, "A Portraiture of Quakerism".

I've been noticing recently that my reading has been dominated by science fiction with a "thriller" element, that absorbs me and seems to make my nonfiction reading "duller". Much of the nonfiction I read would already seem dull to most people, so this is serious! Also, it pushes me away from spending that time with my family, a much more serious problem.


forrest said...

I think you need to distinguish between what I'd call 'excitement porn'-- some nasty variants are 'violence porn' and 'retribution porn', and I expect it's easy enough to recognize the elements that go into those types of story-- vs stories.

Human beings of all cultures seem to have an appetite for stories; and it seems to be at least as nourishing an appetite as our appetite for play. We take in a great deal of information and orientation from stories, much of it beyond anything we can learn as well via deliberate conscious exposition. There's that frequent author reply: "If I knew 'what the book was saying' I wouldn't have needed to write all that." Or consider someone like Dostoyevsky; if you read about his background notes, he was consciously trying to write something like propaganda for Czarist Russian Orthodoxy, only his intuitive feeling for people and their interactions kept subverting that, turning what would have been dumb tracts into really good mirrors of human weirdity.

We've got John Ralston Saul writing that much of the ethical progress of recent centuries could be laid to the influence of novels, an art form that people would deliberately endure, which was far better at conveying the experience of customary injustices and sufferings than the sources of "factual" information, most of which were subject to distortion and suppression by the authorities. (TV is a poor substitute, probably disguises more truth than it reveals...)

And for further light on the use of the imagination (and the distortion of vision incurred by efforts to do without it!) you might also want to read a little nonfictional work by Ursula LeGuin, _The Language of the Night_ Not just good for you, but enjoyable!

Hystery said...

I have found that there are some works of fiction that just aren't good for me either. Learning to know which stories feed the mind and soul and which ones suck the life right out of you is a pretty cool thing. Having tendencies toward depression means that I can waste little time on fictional works that exhaust my ability to cope with the sadness of the real world. I look for literature that spins dark threads with hope and faith. I find children's literature is much more edifying than that written for adults. I also find it is often far better written.

Rudy said...

Forrest, I agree with all your remarks about stories. I'm not familiar with Saul, but the philosopher Richard Rorty also made that point in one of his books: that ethical progress recently has been coming from novels (not philosophy!) He mentions Dostoevsky, but also Dickens.

Thank you for the suggestion of the Ursula Le Guin book, I'll look for it.

Kurt Vonnegut once said something to the effect that stories about vengeance are the easiest to write
(the exact quote is buried somewhere on my Piedmont Diary blog). Space Opera fiction tends to have a lot of that, or at least a lot of "good guys vs. gad guys". I think a lot of what I have been reading comes under your "excitement porn" heading.

Hystery, my younger son turns me on to some wonderful YA fiction. For some reason I had never run across "The Giver" and its sequels for example.

My wife has a better antenna for TV that is wholesome and TV that isn't; and steers our late night TV watching to gentle comedies (time shifted by our Old School VCR). Recently we have been watching "The Middle"; and before that "Corner Gas" (which ran on WGN for a while). She also gets old sitcoms from Netflix.

Do you have any suggestions for YA or children's books that you've especially liked, or found uplifting?

Rudy said...

Here's the Kurt Vonnegut quote:

Kurt Vonnegut on Vengeance

I came across an interview with Kurt Vonnegut in Studs Terkel's book "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?" Vonnegut says:

"The fact that forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us isn't honored more - I blame that on writers. Because the easy story to tell is the vengeance story, and it's known to satisfy. This guy shot my brother. How's the story gonna wind up? And waht does a reader think? OK, that's settled. So it's just the easiest of all stories to tell. So it in fact encourages , makes reputable vengeance."

Hystery said...

I really love the Chronicles of Narnia although I recognize that some are troubled by the violence. While others keep images of Christ in their house, I have statues of lions. :-) I also love the Wrinkle in Time series by Madeleine L'Engle. When reading them as an adult, I realized how much of my understanding of theology was shaped by reading her books when I was a child. Although she does not use the word, her writing focuses on the concept of agape.

Diane said...

I agree with Forrest and Hystery that it's fruitful to be mindful of what we read and watch in the media--much there does reinforce messages of violence and retribution and violence as the only means of problem solving. That said, I agree there's much pleasure and learning to be had from good literature and media. I too enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time as a child and think there's much good children's literature.

Rudy said...

Hystery and Diane, I'm sorry I didn't respond sooner... thank you for your suggestion of A Wrinkle in Time... I haven't read that since I was small, and it's time I reread it.

I haven't read Narnia, though my wife has the whole set from her childhood and my younger son read most of them. I didn't take my younger son to see the movie of the first book, because of my worries about the violence that reviewers talked about in it. But then his summer camp (at a Presbyterian church) watched it, and he loved it.

His favorite part was the (nonviolent, I think!) scene with the beaver family, and beavers became one of his favorite animals, along with manatees (because of a Florida trip) and foxes (I'm not sure why).