This week I had a showdown with a tooth possessing a crooked root and no remorse. Tooth and I were slated, with no other possibilities, for a date with my friendly, skillful dentist, whose news was destined to unmake my day.
I put off the trip for two months, conveniently sick the first time, conveniently out of town for the second one. But this week I faced the music. What helped me gather courage for the trip? Something oddly wonderful. I read Room by Emma Donoghue for my online book club.
I won’t be giving away anything important if I say that in a minor plot point one of the two major characters in Room (a book I highly recommend) was badly in need of a trip to her dentist and couldn’t go. Although there were much loftier and profound issues in the story, I was also struck by how lucky I am to 1–have a great dentist, 2–be able to visit him at will, 3–afford to visit him. Room helped me see the light, although I am sure Donoghue never thought as she wrote the book, “This is great, now more people will appreciate the dental care they take for granted.” Novels can be sneaky that way.
Have you ever said or heard someone else say, “Oh, I’m wasting my day reading a novel?” While we often feel smug reading non-fiction, our reaction to fiction is different–unless it’s a novel so esoteric and difficult to read we feel we’re gathering points with the literati just by checking it out of the library.
But in your own life, haven’t you been affected by fiction, your world rocked, your values reconsidered?
Sometimes the revelation is small: Get ye to the dentist and remember you’re lucky to go. Sometimes the revelation is huge: That’s exactly the way I was treated as a child and I never realized how much it shaped who I am.
As a novelist, it’s easy to say, “I just want to tell a good story.” But stories are often good because they’re powerful enough that we reassess our own lives through the lives of the characters. Almost more interesting, sometimes stories don’t even have to be powerful. Sometimes they just have to connect with something inside us, some thought, fear, untapped wish. Sometimes a very forgettable novel isn’t forgettable to an individual reader because one paragraph, one character, has opened a new door, and they’ve walked through it by novel’s end.
Through the years I’ve had wonderful feedback from my readers. So often, though, the nugget a reader took away from one of my novels wasn’t a golden one I’d buried deep for them to unearth and treasure. It was something small, a connection to something deep inside them that was ready to be unearthed at last.
Who knows what you’ll find in the next novel you read. An insight into someone you love. A memory. A revelation. A desire to make a change. Whatever it is, you won’t have wasted your time. Not if your mind and heart are engaged as you read, and you’re open to new possibilities.