Losing yourself in a big book

One of life’s most accessible pleasures remains reading a big, epic novel, featuring an engaging story that takes you to a different time or place, and introduces you to new, interesting people. I read three such books last year, and I enjoyed each very much.

Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance

It took me the better part of last summer and early fall, but I reread Herman Wouk’s monumental WWII novels, The Winds of War (1971) (set during the prelude to and early years of the Second World War) and War and Remembrance (1978) (from the aftermath of Pearl Harbor through to the end of the war in 1945). Although my introduction to Wouk’s work had come through repeat viewings of the mini-series adaptations of the books, this rereading reminded me how superior the books are to their televised twins.

Both novels center on the lives of the Henry family (whose patriarch, Victor Henry, is a career Navy officer) and the Jastrow family (Jewish author Aaron and his niece Natalie). Together they span much of the globe, with major story lines devoted to the early European theatre, the Holocaust, and the naval war in the Pacific. While the fictional characters drive the narratives, historical figures such as Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin make substantial appearances.

Wouk, a former WWII naval officer himself, stuffs into these novels a megaton of historical background. He even uses the device of lengthy “excerpts” from a fictitious treatise about the war by an equally fictitious German general to provide — as something of a foil — Germany’s perspective on the war.

The WWII era has long been an interest of mine, and I have read plenty of non-fiction books about the war. Nonetheless, Wouk’s two novels and the mini-series adaptations have combined to make the biggest imprint of my impressions and understanding of the sweep of the war. That’s a real credit to his storytelling ability and attention to historical detail.

Stephen King’s 11/22/63

In November I read Stephen King’s new bestseller, 11/22/63 (2011), which centers on a modern day schoolteacher, Jake Epping, going back in time in an attempt to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy. Even though it weighs in at nearly 850 pages, it’s an absorbing tale.  Although the challenge of saving the President is the main plot driver, the novel also offers a terrific backstory about Jake’s work as a teacher, and naturally I found myself dwelling upon it.

The first Stephen King novel I ever read was Salem’s Lot (1975), many years ago. I raced through it, and at times the story was so scary I was afraid to leave my bedroom at night to use the bathroom! It remains one of the best scary book experiences I’ve ever had.

King’s latest is not a horror story. And even the time travel plot falls short of being genuine sci-fi. Although some online reviewers wrote of reading the book in a handful of sittings, for me the pleasure of the book was in taking it slow, drinking in the world of the late 60s and early 60s that King so beautifully sets out for us. Yup, it was about losing myself in a big book.

The pleasures of reading a big book

What makes a big novel worth our investment of time and attention? Here are a few of my responses.

First, it wraps itself around a good story. You care about the characters and what they’re going through, you can lose yourself in their world, and you greet the end with a bit of sadness.

Second, it’s not a chore. With apologies to my more literary friends, novels such as Moby Dick and Bleak House — classics they may be — require too much work of me.

Third, the book teaches you something about life without being preachy. You walk away from it a little wiser.

Fourth, it’s comfortably middlebrow. Only a snob would think less of you for reading it, but it aspires to be something more than hastily churned out, formulaic junk. (Sorry, James Patterson fans…)

The benefits of reading a big book

Reading a good novel is more than a guilty pleasure or a complete escape from reality. Emeritus professor Keith Oatley (University of Toronto) is among those studying the effects of novel reading on the emotional development of readers. He and others are finding that, contrary to popular belief, those who immerse themselves in fictional worlds and characters may be more empathetic, open minded, and socially aware than those who do not.

Oatley gathered these emerging insights in an article appearing in the Nov.-Dec. 2011 issue of Scientific American Mind, “In the Minds of Others.” Here’s a snippet:

Recent research shows that far from being a means to escape the social world, reading stories can actually improve your social skills by helping you better understand other human beings. The process of entering imagined worlds of fiction builds empathy and improves your ability to take another person’s point of view. It can even change your personality. The seemingly solitary act of holing up with a book, then, is actually an exercise in human interaction. It can hone your social brain, so that when you put your book down you may be better prepared for camaraderie, collaboration, even love.

(Although the full article is not freely available from the magazine’s website, a brief summary and ordering information may be accessed here.)

-David Yamada
(Book images courtesy of Wikipedia.)

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