Without a novel to enter before the day is done, my life feels just a little bit emptier. I suppose I’ve been reading novels just about my whole life, from Dick and Jane to Dickens and the search for the next story is constant. Luckily, authors keep writing, publishers keep publishing and there’s no dearth of stories to be told.
What do I look for in a novel? Plot, for one. Many a fine author has me wandering around pleasant scenes where nothing much is happening and my only motivation to turn the page is to hope that someone will mysteriously disappear and leave me to wonder why. A plot that leads me to the edge of wanting to know what will happen next is one of the things that makes me look forward to the nightly read, picking up the next thread of the story. Some of my favorite authors are masters of the unfolding story— like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Others may be short on substance (Agatha Christie and Dan Brown, for example), but can give me sufficient pleasure with plot alone.
Then there’s characters. I have to care about them. Not necessarily like them, but be interested enough that I want to hang out with them. Settings and eras contribute as well. I like armchair traveling to another time and place, but am also a sucker for American novels covering the 50’s to today, with references to events, places and situations I’ve lived through. (For example, The Brothers K, The Power of Their Singing, The Marriage Plot, The Adventures of the Thunderbolt Kid.)
Finally, there’s the writing itself. I love being wrapped up in a good writer’s way of saying things, his or her rhythm, cadence, turn of phrase, grammar and syntax. Little Bee by Chris Cleave is an example of a story that was brutally difficult, with situations and images I’d rather not carry around with me, but with writing so exquisite that it elevated horror to beauty. It’s the same kind of pleasure I get from the touch, phrasing and harmonies of favorite jazz piano players. Doesn’t matter what the song is or plot or characters, it’s the sound alone that touches me.
The icing on the cake is a compatability with the author’s way of seeing the world, from politics to taste to humanitarian concerns. Philosophy married with plot, character, settings and style. That’s the mother lode of novel writing and reading.
Then non-fiction. Ever since discovering Joseph Campbell in the late 1980’s, someone who came to wisdom through a practice of reading 9 hours a day for five years, I’ve kept up a steady diet of intriguing non-fiction, often in waves of subject matter. The whole family of “ologies”— anthropology, mythology, sociology, psychology, technology, musicology, ethnomusicology, ecology and beyond. And etymology— the suffix “ology” means a branch of knowledge and how fascinating it has been to climb each part of the enormous tree of what we know and what interests us. Add to the above readings on neuroscience, education, history, spirituality, philosophy, politics, linguistics, music, jazz history and biography and humor and you have a pretty good idea of my library and my love for ideas. Story touches the heart, ideas light up the mind and both make me grateful that I went to school and entered whole universes through the magic of the printed word.
The third pillar of literacy’s exquisite gifts is poetry, the literary form that awakens the soul. An essay is about something, but a poem is the thing itself— or as near to it as you can get. Poetry is not every day fare for me, I dip in and out like a lake in different seasons. If I’m cold, its wintry waters are often too bracing for my taste. But when the borders of skin relax in the warmth of a sunny season in my life, nothing is more refreshing than to enter those waters of sensous sound. I’ve heard it said that only two things that we experience light up the whole brain and they are deeply connected— poetry and music. The hush in a room when a good poem is being recited is akin to Casals playing the Bach Cello Suites.
I’ve liked reading poetry ever since I discovered Whitman and e.e.cummings as a teenager, but it is only in the last decade that I began memorizing poetry and taking it off the page into a spoken, declaimed and gestured art form and that has made all the difference. I now have the power to change and charge the energy in a room with a simple combination of condensed words that bring things to a halt. I did it recently when I recited Langston Hughes long poem “Let America Be America Again” on Martin Luther King day. If you can bring 90 Middle School students to a pindrop silence for seven minutes, you know you’re on to something!
Fiction, non-fiction and poetry—the three pillars of literacy, food for the heart, mind and soul. Constant companions my whole life long and in the years to come. Thanks to the ancient Sumerians, Greeks, Medieval monks, Johannes Gutenburg and the long illustrious legacy of people who lived their lives and chose to tell about it in print.
P.S. On a lovely Sunday afternoon, trying to decide whether to read Dostoyevsky, Alfred North Whitehead or W.B. Yeats— or go watch the Superbowl. No contest. Go Niners!!!