In the aftermath of 9/11, Smiley set out to read a hundred novels: starting from The Tale of Genji, moving on to Nordic sagas, to Boccaccio’s Decameron, and all the way to today’s novels – by Rohinton Mistry, Francine Prose, Chang-rae Lee, Zadie Smith, Ian McEwan. After finishing each one, she took notes, one to three pages of ideas and throughts fresh from the novel; these rather personal collected notes form the second half of the book. At the same time, she worked on the thirteen longer essays that make up the first half. Because she is “a slow reader”, she says, and because she read a few more books along the way, and (I imagine) because she had other things to do, such as writing another novel and going on a book tour to promote it, it took her about two and a half years. Today I would like to quote some thoughts about the novel as a civilizing force from Chapter Eight, “The Novel and History”. (Polemically, she notes that George W. Bush’s favorite book is not a novel, but a children’s book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, perhaps reflecting the fact that “he doesn’t read, or hasn’t read, any serious novels.”) Here’s what Smiley writes about how novels deepened her understanding of other human beings and her sense of history.
After a hundred and more novels of all kinds and degrees of seriousness, I was well aware that the habit of reading novels molds the mind in several significant ways, ways that other forms of literature do not. […] After more than a hundred novels and two and a half years of history, I saw that the world I thought was established and secure, at least in the West, is more fragile than I thought, because it is newer than I realized. […] I saw, with some surprise, that my world is fragile not only because of forces from the East, but also because of forces from the West, forces from Texas, forces from Wyoming, forces from the evangelical right, forces from the corporate world, forces from the world of think tanks and political institutes. We seem to live in a world now where all thoughts are focused on the idea of prevailing, of imposing one’s beliefs on others, and no thoughts, no thoughts are given to the costs of prevailing, or even what it means. Have these people never read Moby-Dick? Well, no, they haven’t. […]
My guess is that mere technology will not kill the novel. […] But novels can be sidelined — dismissed to the seraglio, where they are read by women and children and have no effect on those in power. When that happens, our society will be brutalized and coarsened by people who speak rather like us and look rather like us but who have no way of understanding us or each other.