Only in a novel are all things given full play. – D.H. Lawrence
Story. It is the essence of what it means to be human. Some of the earliest evidence of our existence involves story, coming to us as smeared ochre images on the walls of caves. Every culture has left us – along with arrowheads, pottery shards, and trash heaps – their stories, and it is these works of art perhaps more than anything else that tell us who they really were. For whatever reason, regardless of how they are recorded, the human condition requires story.
Long ago the most important invention of all time made remembering and passing along stories much more reliable. It’s the little squiggles you’re reading right now. We take writing for granted today but long after it’s development it remained powerful magic reserved for priests and royalty. The Egyptians felt this so strongly they believed that to write down a name was to bring a thing into existence. Incidentally, you could also erase something from existence by scratching it out and there are chipped out names on stella and obelisks all over Ancient Egypt. But because it is all around us, and almost everyone knows how to do it, we forget what powerful magic writing is. Don’t think so? Take these words by Plato:
Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools speak because they have to say something.
You just read Plato’s thoughts. A neural pattern he conceived over 2,500 years ago. In fact, just this second you’re reading my thoughts about reading thoughts. Not only does writing allow us to transmit thoughts and ideas without speaking, it lets us do it over space and time. If that isn’t magic I don’t know what is.
Of course, to record your thoughts you have to have something to write on. Stone works well and lasts forever but is not very convenient. Clay tablets are only a little better. Animal skins and plants formed into scrolls served for most of human history but making continuous sheets has always been expensive, storing scrolls is problematic since they crush easily, and natural fibers are easily destroyed. Not to mention the difficulty of copying by hand. As a result, most people never learned the magic and rarely benefited from its existence. Over the centuries, as new technologies were adopted, books evolved into their current form and paper replaced parchment until everything came together in the 15th Century and Guttenberg altered our universe with the first practical printing press. At that point it became relatively easy to transmit not only thoughts, but entire theses over space and time. Since then the book has remained the primary way to store writing. At least up until last week or so.
But books are not novels. A book can be a novel if it contains a narrative, sequential story but it can also contain pictures, recipes, weather data, or whatever. They can be used to store any kind of information that can be transmitted through writing or images. Indeed, as opposed to stories, I am entirely capable of writing just about anything down. In fact my first book was non-fiction and was entitled, Mass Estimation of a Multi-stage Launch Vehicle Using an Extended Kalman Filter, my masters thesis. You probably won’t ever read it. But anyone can write a book and you can put anything into it. So while I often read non-fiction and am capable of writing it, I prefer to write fiction in the form of novels for a few very specific reasons.
From a purely observational standpoint, writing is an amazing piece of technology that I enjoy using. Breaking down communication into little symbols that build into larger symbols that go into even more complex constructions fascinates me every time I do it. More specifically, I like novels. The first ‘chapter-book’ I read was called “Jock’s Island” in about 1975 and I’ve been reading ever since. Not only do novels entertain, they can take us places and let us be and do things we could never experience otherwise. The willing suspension of disbelief is key to this process and separates us from the animals every bit as much as music and art.
Beyond the emotional experience of ingesting a novel, fiction is very good at giving us a glimpse of our own world view. Non-fiction presents information as ‘fact’, and fact can be powerful. Accounts of human perseverance can influence us deeply. Books about things like global warming, politics, philosophy, and technological change have initiated profound societal upheaval. Yet in the end, while non-fiction can present us with new facts it rarely causes us to reflect upon why we interpret the facts the way we do. Physicists observe otherwise invisible phenomenon by carefully controlling a set of conditions. We call this an experiment. The novelist does this with human nature by creating a self-consistent world designed specifically for the task. By stripping away premises and notions that bias our interpretation of an event or situation, the novel helps us resolve the kernels of our individual world view.
We don’t often think of it as such, especially with our new-fangled e-readers, but a printed novel is a high-tech item. Made from modern paper, printed and durably bound in a way that maximizes information density but retains portability, utilizing a sophisticated code that enables the transmission of thought across space and time, containing highly structured linguistic and literary elements that provide entertainment while simultaneously invoking self-reflection and possibly even personal transformation, requiring no electricity or other power source to function, able to affect societal change on a broad scale, the novel is one civilizations’s most elegant creations. The culmination of 5,000 years of human experience. At once, technology, art, culture, beauty, craft.
Thousands of novels are published each year, most of them carefully screened and edited to ensure that the publicly-traded companies that churn them out by the millions don’t take a loss. The result is stacks of beautifully printed and bound books that all say basically the same thing at around an 8th grade comprehension level. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, indeed their business model depends on it, but mass-produced ideas just aren’t for me. Mass production generates average products for average people and I’m not aiming for average. I strive for excellence in all I do whether it is creating a masterpiece from wood, designing a missile control system, riding a trials line, or creating a novel for you to enjoy. If you are like me and aspire to exceed average in your pursuits, and if your reading falls into that category, I invite you to discover my work. You can be assured it will not be like the last thing you read. And though it will only take a day to finish, you will think about it for a lifetime.
Novels Edited by John C. Brewer: