The Power of a Good Novel

Jan - Cortland, Ohio
Entered on June 7, 2008

I believe in the power of a good novel to forever change its reader.

The novel is power. The wings of the written word can leave the reader celebrating; it can coax out teardrops long repressed; it can give a “Eureka” moment of clarity where thoughts coalesce and things fall into place.

A good novel can body-slam you, taking your breath away, but yet, you still crawl back toward it.

In my childhood, that “powerful good novel” was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. When I was finished with that book, with its science and its religion all mixed up into one, with its message of love – love, the most powerful force in the universe – I knew that I had been handed by my mother, a great gift. A book that forced you to use your mind and your heart, together – and a book that made you hungry for books that would do the same.

During those formative years, I also made the acquaintance of one Ray Bradbury, an unassuming man from Illinois, who wrote fictional poetry – his words were the words of a poet, yet it was not verse. His images of ice cream suits and butterflies changing history and the ache of a life too ordinary are still burned into my soul. And I found other authors, too, who drew me into heartache, unleashed passion, horror, guilt, happiness, and of course, love.

As I grew older, I sought refuge in non-fiction. I could not hand myself fully over to the novel and risk being drawn once more into the fire, not able to wrest myself away until the book was finished; not being able to turn from the characters until the last chapter concluded. I could not afford the emotional investment that comes due as one reads a good book.

Of course, I could not distance myself forever. I have begun dipping my toe back into the novel – willing to risk again – and I have not been disappointed.

In the year 2005, I was enslaved by Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. I was the novel’s captive and it the focus of my universe. I have since committed to re-reading it every fall, welcoming home every word, embracing again every scene.

Recently finishing The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard, I sat literally stunned at the kitchen table, in the quiet of a summer morning. I kept repeating, in awe, “What a good book! What a good book!”

The gift of a good novel is the writer’s ability to unexpectedly suck you up into a vortex of words, whirl your emotions around, carry you away on a steam of language, and when it’s over, leave you spent, breathless, exhilarated, and desperately wanting more.