The Power of a Good Novel

Jan - Cortland, Ohio
Entered on June 7, 2008
Age Group: 50 - 65
  • Podcasts

    Sign up for our free, weekly podcast of featured essays. You can download recent episodes individually, or subscribe to automatically receive each podcast. Learn more.

  • FAQ

    Frequently asked questions about the This I Believe project, educational opportunities and more...

  • Top Essays USB Drive

    This USB drive contains 100 of the top This I Believe audio broadcasts of the last ten years, plus some favorites from Edward R. Murrow's radio series of the 1950s. It's perfect for personal or classroom use! Click here to learn more.

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.