Stories that enable us to make sense of our lives

by Rachel Cooke

The Observer

No one can say precisely why John Williams’ novel “Stoner” has become a best-seller almost 50 years after its first publication. After all, plenty of books, “forgotten” or otherwise, are recommended by word of mouth and yet most will not go on to sell more than a few hundred copies.

And it’s hard to know in what ways, if any, its story — a young man falls in love with literature and thus a new world is revealed to him — might have touched people. Many of those who rushed to buy will not yet have got around to opening it and some will never read it. Stoner will languish on their shelves, its spine unbroken, just like Jung Chang’s “Wild Swans,” the nonfiction hit of 1992.

Still, it has given us something to think about, this dusting down of so plangent and substantial a novel. On BBC Radio 4 recently, Ruth Rendell, the novelist and British Labour Party peer, suggested that Stoner is a book for our times, her argument being that we live in an age when reading is for most an alien pastime, just as it is to William Stoner until he has an epiphany.

(Asked to elucidate a poem by a professor at his midwestern university, he is unable to say anything except: “It means … it means,” and yet, in this moment, everything changes; the verse, whether he understands it or not, has touched him on some powerfully deep level.)

“We are told that it isn’t happening,” said Rendell. “But it is. Reading is no longer something that everybody does as a matter of course. Reading is becoming a kind of specialist activity, and that strikes terror into the heart of people who love reading.”

Is she right?

I started out determined to write a Pollyanna-ish piece insisting she is wrong. I thought, in no particular order, of all those excited children who grew up on “Harry Potter” (now, one assumes, book-buying young adults); of the fact that some 150,000 books are published in the United Kingdome very year and that even in the face of the recession and digital technology, more than £1.4 billion was spent on printed books in 2013; of the success of small and old-fashioned publishers such as Persephone Books, and new ones such as Unbound, whose crowd-funded “Letters of Note” was a Christmas best-seller.

But as I sat down at my desk, gloomier thoughts rushed in. Face facts, I told myself. British libraries are closing and not even Labour Party councils seem minded to save them. Bookshops are struggling.

The BBC now devotes no TV program to literature. And then, more anecdotal evidence. A recent rail journey when no person in my carriage was doing anything other than prodding a tiny screen. A conversation with an (educated, affluent) acquaintance who told me: “I don’t really read any more.” A conversation with a publisher as to what a “big sale” means when it comes to a well-reviewed literary novel (if you’re interested, a sudden “spike” amounts to 140 copies).

The fact that most best-sellers are not careful, beautiful novels about university teachers and their struggle to navigate life, but the chunterings of TV chefs and aging comedians. Most lowering of all, I considered the constant noise and rush that surrounds publishing, a howling gale that works against reading, an activity that requires peace and patience.

On New Year’s Day, a literary agent announced on Twitter that there would be two novels worth reading in 2014. One of these wouldn’t be published until June. Fans of Twitter celebrate it as a place to discover and talk about books. But it craves novelty, that sense of “me first,” like no other medium, and this kills off some novels before they can walk.

Who can commit to “The Goldfinch” or “The Luminaries” when the titles are busily piling on some virtual shelf? Such “conversations” can leave me feeling weary of a book that is still in a van on its way to the wholesaler.

Does it matter if only a tiny and select group of people reads novels in the future? Of course it does. This is not about literacy — though it could be, if you want to go that route (I’m not sure I would have learned to read properly and effectively if, as a child, I hadn’t discovered novels; certainly, I would never have learned to write). It’s about understanding. To pinch from the computer scientist Jaron Lanier: You are not a gadget.

How are we to make sense of ourselves and the world that holds us if not by reading stories? For isn’t this how we’ve talked to ourselves — soothed, stimulated and improved ourselves — for thousands of years? Aren’t stories our havens?

I know I sound like a tragic old Leavisite when I say that fiction and ethics are intimately bound, but I really feel this to be true. Novel reading boosts empathy or, at any rate, reminds us that things are complicated; fiction unpicks knots. The success of “The Examined Life” by the psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz has, it seems to me, relatively little to do with his clinical know-how; it rests, as Freud’s did, on his storytelling abilities.

Then there is the question of culture, of aesthetics, of pleasure. What a pity to be shut out of these, and I’m not only talking about Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen, but about Barbara Pym and Dorothy L. Sayers, or whoever else floats your boat. Fewer people used to be excluded from this endless richness, of this I’m convinced.

Rachel Cooke is a writer at The Observer.