Among scholars, it is generally agreed that the birth of the modern day novel occurred in 1605, with Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, although earlier examples can debatably be traced back to antiquity. Classical-era Rome, Greece, China and Japan have variously been credited with originating the novel, but for the sake of focus, we will look at examples of the form written from the 17th century onwards.
Novels are characterised by a fictional narrative, although they frequently serve as a reflection of the time and place they were written in (social realism). They are composed in prose, a format for writing that mimics a natural flow of speech and obeys grammatical convention (as opposed to verse, founded on rhythm, rhyme and metre). A novel also offers to its reader a level of intimacy with the protagonist unparalleled among narrative art – in the best examples of the form, the reader can achieve near-total immersion in the character’s psychology. The best novels show a noble effort from the writer to make sense of human relationships, which are infinitely complex and changeable. As readers, we are given a detailed description of the protagonist’s personal journey – their experiences sensory, emotional, or even spiritual, with none of the limits that other art forms face, such as, budgetary constraints in a television programme. As long as it can be articulated in words, it can be depicted.
The 19th century is often described as the “peak” era for the novel – many of the most enduring long form works, such as those by Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, were originally serialised in periodicals. The works of those authors, along with many others from their period, such as Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, Mary Shelley etc., have endured because of their social realism. They resonated with the literate masses. A tremendous amount of the media we consume today, whether that is science fiction films such as Venom or character-driven dramas such as Breaking Bad, builds on the approaches to storytelling established by these authors.
We tend to think of the likes of Dickens or Hardy as being ‘high culture’, best saved for the academics and hobbyists, but novels were considered ‘low culture’ during the period because of their easily-digestible instalments and frequent use of devices such as cliffhangers – techniques we see all the time in ‘accessible’ art forms today. I like to think of a little scene in an episode of Breaking Bad in which Jesse and his junkie friends visit a music shop. Skinny Pete, ragged and drug-addled, is briefly shown playing keyboard to a virtuoso standard, but is quickly drowned out by Badger clanging away on an electric guitar. It’s a tiny moment, but it’s loaded with depth. That’s literary.
Literary, in the sense that it uses a fleeting moment to illustrate a broader point, but also not literary, because of the way that moment is presented. The verbal information delivered to the viewer via dialogue is only one component – probably only about a third of all stimuli in the scene. The viewer is also exposed to sound and vision, each crafted by costume designers, audio engineers, cinematographers, et al. This is where television and film have the upper hand, though fortunately they haven’t cracked smell and touch quite yet.
The “golden period” was perhaps brought to a close by the appearance of the “idiot box”, or television set. TV provides relaxation - bright colours, and a mostly pre-packaged, multi-sensory experience, put together by a committee of creatives in the factory-like environment of a studio. It becomes a communal experience, associated with families or couples, especially when there’s a laugh track involved. In contrast, we tend now to associate the person absorbed in a heavy novel with intensity and perhaps even unsociability.
However, neurological studies indicate that the opposite could be true. A 2015 study (Cerebral Cortex Volume 25) carried out with Japanese children identified a link between high levels of television viewing and the thickness of the frontal lobe. Unusual thickness in the frontal lobe is in turn associated with lower verbal IQ. In addition to this, the areas of the brain linked with sensory processing and emotional responses, such as aggression and arousal, were significantly enlarged. In contrast, neuropsychologists link reading with sharper executive functioning – activation (organisation and prioritisation of tasks), focus, effort, emotion, memory, and the self-regulation of actions.
By the time of writing, however, even television appears drawn-out when compared with more recent developments such as YouTube, Twitter or Snapchat. Art and entertainment appears to be in a state of terminal truncation, and although it is tempting to immediately label this as ‘bad’ or ‘symptomatic of a collective shortening in attention span’, it may not be as simple as that. Perhaps there is literary value in TikTok compilations; perhaps there is just as much analysis of the human condition in a ten-minute long Vine edit as in eight hundred pages of The Brothers Karamazov, and perhaps the lyrics of a grime track have just as much honesty as a John Keats sonnet. Art forms are constantly changing, and the question really is whether that change is a symptom of decline, or of progress. Every free-form poet, installation artist, rock n’ roller, rapper and experimental filmmaker was and is attempting to answer that question. It is eternal.
All of this being taken into account, I still think it is important to preserve reading at length for pleasure. I’m no neuroscientist, but from where I’m sitting, it seems that reading trains the mind to be patient – it is not easy to visualise another life, another person’s soul, even, with nothing but the ink on a page to go off. Try it.