Novels, Earthworms and Raw Mutton
March 5, 2015
On this snowy day in March, when my hometown Philadelphia is pretending to be Boston and Boston is pretending to be Baffin Island, I’m taking a break from shoveling two sidewalks (office and home) and inventing ways to torture the groundhog who predicted this weather.
Now would be a perfect time for reading a novel. Lately, though, I’ve been pondering the frequent reactions I get when I recommend a recent novel to friends or acquaintances.
Sometimes it’s a pained, put-upon look, as if I’d suggested they shovel the snow from my 100-foot driveway. (Strictly a metaphor; my driveway is only 6 feet.)
Sometimes it’s an unbelieving, disdainful grimace as if I’d offered tickets to a Justin Bieber concert.
Sometimes it’s even worse: a repulsed glare as if I’d dragged my friend to an expensive restaurant for a feast of earthworms, sycamore bark and raw mutton. (Metaphor again: Philly doesn’t boast such a restaurant—yet.)
The people I’m talking about are urbane, well-educated folk who must, at one time or other, have read a novel. Why does the idea repel them so much now? I’ve come up with several possible explanations.
- Middlebrows like me, they need all their spare time for watching British costume dramas. Maybe, like me, they’re still trying to figure out why any eligible bachelors tolerate Mary Crawley.
- Implying that a friend would read a book for fun is an insult, really. It’s like saying your haircut is so perfectly 1974.
- Given the dire condition of the world, they may agree with Elena Ferrante’s character Franco Mari, a political activist who declares to his ex-girlfriend, “[T]his, objectively, is not the moment for writing novels” (from Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay).
- They may see contemporary novels as gimmicky and trivial. Partly true.
- They may see contemporary novels as wordy, opaque, unfocused and boring. Also partly true.
- It’s a pain to read a lot of text on a phone, and what other way is there to read?
- If the friend is male, he probably views novel-reading as beneath his serious manly dignity, like Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice: “Mr. Bennet was glad to take his guest into the drawing-room again, and, when tea was over, glad to invite him to read aloud to the ladies. Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but, on beholding it (for everything announced it to be from a circulating library), he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels.”
You know, after all that, I’ve convinced myself it’s foolish to waste time on fiction. I think my companion has a better idea for a wintry afternoon.