home reading

Why read novels

Virginia Woolf, on novels:

If one shuts one's eyes and thinks of the novel as a whole, it would seem to be a creation owning a certain looking-glass likeness to life, though of course with simplifications and distortions innumerable. At any rate, it is a structure leaving a shape on the mind's eye, built now in squares, now pagoda-shaped, now throwing out wings and arcades, now solidly compact and domes like the Cathedral of Saint Sofia at Constantinople.

This shape, I thought, thinking back over certain famous novels, starts in one the kind of emotion that is appropriate to it. But that emotion at once blends itself with others, for the 'shape' is not made by the relation of stone to stone, but by the relation of human being to human being.

Thus a novel starts in us all sorts of antagonistic and opposed emotions. Life conflicts with something that is not life. Hence the difficulty of coming to any agreement about novels, and the immense sway our private prejudices have upon us.

We read novels to confront (or verify) the shapes of our prejudices. The best ones to read, then, are ones that challenge and even change the shapes of our prejudices.