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Why Do People Read Novels? by Ben Marshall

It seems like a pointless question with an obvious answer – people read novels to learn and to be entertained.  However, the relationship between reader and book is a little more complicated and interesting than that.

When we read novels, we read about characters.  As readers we have a perspective not found in real life that allows us instant access to what characters are thinking and feeling.

We watch our protagonists snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and our antagonists grasp defeat from the jaws of victory.  Through their interactions with other characters we understand their internal journeys and empathise with them.

This behaviour of ours is possible because of what we call Theory of Mind, and is the ability of humans, from a young age, to deduce or infer the mind-states of others.  As soon as we learn to do this as children we don’t stop doing it until we die.

We determine the mind states of others constantly because we need to.  We’re social animals and our relationships are crucial to our survival – as much today as in the distant past.  But people are different, so our deductions are often wrong.  For example, though we learn to lie around age four, and perfect our abilities in our teenage years, studies show we’re actually rather bad at telling when other people are lying.

Getting it wrong about other’s intentions can have terrible consequences on us as individuals, on our relationships and our place in our wider social group.  Social death is almost as much to be avoided as physical death.  This is why we constantly study the behaviour of others, modify our own and, especially, we talk about it.

Social intercourse, or gossip, bonds humans in the same way as grooming does among the other higher primates, mitigating misunderstandings and group tensions.  We gather and talk, and, whatever the topic, it’s inevitably about people.  Whether we’re talking about our hairdresser, the coach of our team, our politicians or the people next door, we tell stories and share insights about others in a way that bonds us and eases tensions with laughter.

However, socialising isn’t risk-free.  Mistakes and misunderstandings are public and have consequences.  On the other hand, novels allow us to engage with other minds all by ourselves, and safely.  Since the advent of feature films and television programs, we also do a lot of our people-watching via these distilled forms of human connection and narrative sharing.

Are novels on a par with period drama films or reality shows about people losing weight?  They certainly share the tropes of storytelling and we derive similar pleasures from them.  Anna Karenina and The Biggest Loser are both narratives, full of characters and stories we find fascinating.

So, as with Celebrity Splash, we dive into the worlds of our novels, inhabit the heads of our protagonists and speculate about what might happen next, knowing that, unlike in real life, all will be revealed if we simply keep turning the pages.

Crucially, our involvement with our characters extends not only to their relationships, but groups of relationships, and the relationships of both to time and place, nature and culture, life and death.

Anna Karenina’s roots are buried deep in the literary and historical soil of its time.  Yes, we could do a remake set in the modern era, but that too would be as rooted in the world of now.

As each generation arises, the same existential questions occur.  What is life and what is death?  What are good and evil, and does it matter if we’re both?  Why is my culture/tribe/religious belief system/political ideology the best one, and why is every other suspect?

We read to deal with these issues, to enable us as better socialisers, to luxuriate in hearing other voices echo our thoughts, to be challenged to exercise our minds and grow new understandings, to playfully run through simulations of behaviours we need to understand or that we aspire to.

We read because we need to constantly engage with the worlds and mental states of others, and we do it as naturally, and as functionally, as when we meet with family and friends.

Novels are worlds that allow us to float above it all, watching, learning, holding existential dread at bay, and sharing a narrative.

We are alive in the world and yet, in the arms of a skilled novelist, we are magically safe from death, disease and faux pas – as safe as when we were tucked up in bed and our parents first read to us.


Ben Marshall’s author website:

Ben Marshall’s bio page


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