What’s the Purpose of Novels? — By Anwar AlKandari

This essay first appeared on Anwar’s blog.

“The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything.”― Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Whatever we are doing in our everyday life, it is mostly for the purpose of making the most sense out of this world. Literature, science, music, visual arts, psychology, and all fields are forever on-going attempts to put puzzle pieces of the world together and trying to get a glimpse of what’s going on. Most importantly, all of these puzzle pieces are equal in size. However, remember when you tried to put puzzle pieces together and you simply picked the ones with clearer shapes because simply: it’s a good kick-off to build other pieces (ones on the edges with fused shapes) based on them?

I’d say that novels in literature are those puzzle pieces that you START with in attempt to comprehend humanity and the world all together. As long as humanity exists, novels are essential.

Why do we read novels?

1. Novels question your morals

When reading a novel, at least a good one, it never tells you what is right or wrong. It’s simply a narrative that takes you into the hero’s shoes and lets you experience difficult moral situations. You become in a state of constant questioning throughout the novel (like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment), perhaps even after finishing it, until you form your own moral compass which you base your acts on.

Think of your moral system as a muscle that is built through exposure to complex moral situations. The stronger the muscle is, the better decision-making skills you’ll have. Questioning, contemplation, and logical interpretation are the seeds that plant your wisdom. Without these three seeds, you’re just forming a herd mentality.

2. Shift of perspectives

When you are looking at a narrative from, say, a thief’s perspective, haven’t you noticed that as you turn the pages, you slowly begin to defend this thief (the same thief whom at the beginning you could’ve judged as “bad” or “evil”)? What happened?

You simply understood the motives, fears, emotions, and thoughts that drove this thief in the person. Therefore, you built a sense of connection to the character. Note that there’s a difference between understanding and defending the acts of a thief — I’m not saying that you began to defend acts of harming others, but simply understand where these acts are coming from. You build emotional intelligence and increase your empathy (check the studies mentioned here).

This world is just too big to discover it through one character, you need to somehow live it through multiple characters.

3. Time travel

You open old notebooks of yours, and experience a short time-travel to your own childhood. What about books that came into existence before you?

I remember having a conversation with a friend on history, and he told me that I’ve got good knowledge on cars and transportation in history. Then I realized that I’ve never read a book, or articles, specifically about car models in history. It’s all because of the fact that I’ve been in the 1920’s through a novel, and got carried away in all its details without realizing all of the information I’ve taken in regarding that time in history.

We don’t have an opportunity to physically travel back in time, at least not yet, but here’s a magical perspective that could make you fall in love with this idea: imagine that the ONLY difference between an actual time travel and an imaginary one is your ability to change the narratives and events. You do get to travel backwards (or even forwards) in time, but you’re not allowed to make any differences on the events. You’re there for complete observation of how the world looked like (or will look like) in that time. Would you miss such an opportunity?

4. Wider scope of imagination

When you read a novel, you’re: building characters in your mind, making up physical features, designing atmospheres, listening to different inner-dialogues, etc., all of these details are running simultaneously in your head as you’re turning the pages! You’re learning to build multiple worlds in your head. How fascinating!

Many people like to be realistic and avoid reading fiction, while fiction is merely reality disguised in fictional characters or objects in a book. It gives you a different lens to see reality, especially for heavy and sensitive topics (when it’s leaning towards fiction, it makes the subject just a bit lighter on the reader and the public to accept). Not only that, but it’s also more open to different interpretations which allows, again, a wider scope of imagination.

Remember: imagination is more important than knowledge.

5. “The first time” look

One feeling that makes kids special is looking at something with astonishment. The kind of astonishment that makes you look at something, like a tree or butterfly, for the first time ever (you know you’re taking a good care of your inner child if you still have that astonishment towards the world).

Novels can have repeated ideas or themes, yet we’re never sick of them. Why? Simply because they allow you to look at something repeatedly, but with different lenses. If you read a novel about a space traveler on the moon and finished it, wouldn’t something spark in your eyes the next time you see the moon?

That is a true treasure I find in novels: maintaining fresh eyes and an astonished heart that reminds me of the multiple realities that exist other than mine.

The list could go on and on, but I want you to contemplate the purposes of reading novels on your own and based on your needs. Remember that as long as humanity exists, novels are essential. Good luck in putting the puzzle pieces together.



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