A work of art works because it is true, not because it is real. ~ Yann Martel
Once upon a time I went to a book reading by my favorite novelist, Yann Martel. His first novel, The Life of Pi, was one of those books that changed my perception of the world. This isn’t the time for a book review, but suffice to say that if I recommend Life of Pi to someone and they don’t like it, I make a silent little note of judgment in my mind. It means that much to me, this lyrical story about a young Indian boy named Piscine (the titular Pi) who, after a strange series of perfect-storm-like incidents, gets stranded on a small boat in the Atlantic Ocean with a tiger… or does he? This story makes you think hard about what it means to believe in something.
After I read it, I bought The Life of Pi for my last boyfriend. I was really excited for him to read it too, because, when we first met, I was captivated by his creative, offbeat way of thinking and our mutual fascination with religion, as two people who were brought up by boring bohemian atheists in the ’70s. Naturally, I thought he’d get it.
Turns out, he didn’t enjoy Life of Pi so much. Because he never read it. Turns out he doesn’t read novels. Turns out that he thinks people who read novels are kind of stupid and that it’s a waste of time to read novels when you could be reading things like Guns, Germs and Steel or watching hours and hours of Ted Talks and Zeitgeist, The Movie.
We once had a rather heated argument wherein I defended novel reading and he said things like “I didn’t say that you are stupid; I just said people who read novels are stupid.” And I got increasingly confused and tongue-tied, as I often did when we argued.
So, seeing Yann Martel speak, a few years later, was one of the most redeeming creative experiences that I ever had.
He talked at length about the importance of reading novels. He talked about how people that don’t read are basically depriving themselves of alternate views of the world that would enable the cultivation of legitimate and intelligent opinions. He said, “Literature is not just entertainment. It’s a tool with which we dissect and interpret our culture.”
Then he started talking about The Life of Pi, this odd little fantasy adventure story about Pi and a lifeboat and a tiger named Richard Parker, together lost at sea for 227 days. I won’t ruin the plot for those of you lucky enough not to have read it yet, but in the end, Life of Pi is a soliloquy on the nature of faith, reality, and the subjective nature of memory. It’s also a really great story.
When Yann Martel was asked where he got the inspiration for this book, he said that it was born from a “fatigue with being reasonable.” He went on to explain that you can interpret life in two ways:
- With transcendental, magical thinking
Intellectuals, scientists, politicians, and capitalists generally go for option one. A reasonable outlook on life seems to be the most practical, does it not? But artists have to gravitate toward option two. Because being reasonable is a very good way to eliminate magical thinking. Sometimes, reason is beside the point. It breeds sterility. It crushes creativity. It leads us ultimately nowhere.
When you read a novel, you’re championing the cause of creativity and imagination.
(P.S. Do you want to know what other novels I like?)