A few days ago, and with only a week until classes start, I thought: I should read a novel, the only other thing I read all summer having been McCullough’s Truman — a great whale of a thing that educated, but didn’t much entertain. Truman himself being, well, simply too amiable a subject; and, too, where once I read novels by the wheelbarrow-full, for the past decade or so I’ve immersed myself in non-fiction, making up for a misspent education. #$@&%*!-ing poetry. Seventeenth-century DEVOTIONAL poetry and all the attendant criticism, the oblique talmudic mutterings of scholars quick and dead. Now, that's no way to spend your youth and squander your manly vigor in the springtime of your life.
Uh, in any case, I reached, with barely any hesitation, for Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and a fourth go-around. It’s that good. On so many levels. But most of all, the sheer literary; every phrase a gem, paragraph after paragraph leaves me gasping, with no small envy: “how TF does she DO that?” And a raft of characters who are, if not by any stretch amiable, magnificently human in their aspirations and their forever falling short of the same.
I am reminded of why—aside from the enchantment of the amazingly well-wrought words—I read novels, or should be reading more of them. I’ve suggested to Celeste, in describing our relationship, that she’s psychological, I’m sociological; she cares deeply, very, about individuals, has a genuine sympathy for them as persons. Whereas, as I’ve got older, I’m afraid I see them as demographic units. Or collections of opinions. Not very flattering, I suppose. No, I’m not all THAT callous; but the novel IS a cure for that sort of thing. You know the old dictum: “don’t tell, show”; at the hands of a master—e.g., Mantel, little is told, everything is shown, and in remarkably nuanced fashion. And while that demands much of a reader, all that focus on and exhausting interpretation of detail—kinda like law school exam hypotheticals, come to think of it—the habit carries over, off the page and into our own daily semi-fictional universes.
In other words, novels teach us to read people.
No accident that Wolf Hall should have me thinking along these pragmatic lines; Mantel’s hero, the generally maligned Thomas NOT OLIVER Cromwell, is, more than anything else, a pragmatic man—a first rate drafter of contracts, no less, which made my lawyerly heart go all a-flutter this time around, and a reader of people (and truly sympathetic ur-capitalist, by the way). Robert Caro cites a line of LBJ’s in his bio which runs something along the lines of, “give me half a minute alone with a man, and I’ll tell you what he wants—or is it fears?—the most.” That’s Mantel’s Cromwell. And that, a cynic might say, is why times spent reading novels is time well-spent.