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.