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Novels help make us human

Hulton Deutsch/Getty

We keep being told the novel is dying, says Kit Wilson in The Critic, and there’s no doubt that over the past century it has come to play an “increasingly peripheral part in our lives”. We have taken many of its organs, transplanting them into other bodies – story and spectacle into film, social commentary into documentary and journalism. But that leaves the heart, the most vital organ: the novel’s unique ability to “describe the internal thoughts and feelings of other people”. The novel allows us to “wriggle through the crannies of a stranger’s cranium”, experiencing the full range of someone else’s feelings. 

By 1900, 95% of the population of England was literate. Through fiction, people could live for a moment in the minds of those very different to them and understand them as “fellow human beings”. A deeper truth about humanity was revealed: that beneath the “ephemeral spume” of class and social category, we are broadly alike. Only novels let us fully inhabit the minds of others. If we stop reading them, our society will become less emotionally imaginative, less capable of empathy. We see this already in “stay in your lane” identity politics and the increasing political tribalism. But identitarians have everything back to front: there is more that unites us than divides us. It’s an extraordinary thought that without the novel it’s unlikely we’d be where we are today: we might never have embraced “political liberalism” or had universal suffrage.

Read the full article here.