Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Understanding novels

"I love reading novels," the Doctor explained. "You can understand them without thinking too much."
Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver

No, Quicksilver is not a Doctor Who novel. It is a historical novel set in the 17th century, and the Doctor here is Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a German mathematician and philosopher who designed one of the first mechanical calculators. He makes the above statement in 1684, which seems a bit early to be saying something like that.

Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is sometimes considered to be the first novel, and it was not published until 1719. Don Quixote came along much earlier, in 1605,  but it was not called a novel. Fictional accounts before the 18th century were usually termed romances. The Italians used the word novella to refer to fictional short stories, and the English coined the word novel from this in the 18th century, at least according to Wikipedia. So "I love reading novels" doesn't sound like something anybody would have said in 1684, not even someone as intelligent as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

As for the second part of the Doctor's statement, "You can understand them without thinking too much," that strikes me as a pretty good reason for reading novels (or watching movies or enjoying stories of any kind). You can understand them without thinking too much. I think that explains why Jesus taught using parables, stories that conveys his points without requiring too much from his listeners, mostly  people with ordinary intellects.

At their best, however, stories do require a little thought. They remain open to multiple interpretations, and the author's intentions are not necessarily obvious.

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