A strange thing about novels is how often, and strenuously, they proclaim the dangers of novel-reading. Consider the fates of our most famous bibliomaniacs. Don Quixote succumbs to delusions, debt and sundry humiliations. Emma Bovary to debt, seedy affairs and protracted death by arsenic. Catherine Morland, delusions. Mary Bennet, insufferable pedantry. Jo March — unforgivably — marriage to an insufferable pedant and surrender of all creative ambitions.
The novel’s ability to seduce readers with its alternate, and invariably more attractive, versions of reality was much lamented in the 19th century. Thomas Jefferson blamed literature for encouraging “a bloated imagination, sickly judgment and disgust towards all the real businesses of life.” But it is this very power — to inspire us to insist a flock of sheep is an opposing army — that is literature’s true subject, according to the critic and journalist Elif Batuman. Novels are about other novels — and how they make us suffer, she wrote in her 2010 essay collection, “The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.” They are about “the protagonist’s struggle to transform his arbitrary, fragmented, given experience into a narrative as meaningful as his favorite books.”