Time To Ponder Books: should readers learn something by the end of a novel?

I’ve been talking to Jackie @ Death by Tsundoku about doing more discussion posts, but haven’t quite taken the leap just yet. I get shy. But thanks to Briana and Krysta @ Pages Unbound, I don’t even have to come up with my own topics. There have a couple of posts with ideas for discussion starters. I decided to name this series Time To Ponder Books and use the meme of Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn from the film Suicide Squad as she drinks coffee and reads a book in jail. She’s got time. Get it? Eh? I love Margot Robbie.

Today, I want to ponder whether or not a reader should learn something by the end of the novel. Briana and Krysta specifically asked whether children should learn anything, but I’ve been reading book review posts from you folks in which it’s pretty clear the reader should take away a lesson. Take my recent review of Corregidora by Gayl Jones. Even though I didn’t finish it, I knew it was trying to an instill an important lesson in me: if we quit talking about the horrors endured by slaves (especially women), the actual humans who suffered will be erased.

That’s a biiiiig lesson to learn (and also Very Important), but are we moving in a different direction when we talk about race? What about when authors and screenwriters craft a story about African Americans? Activists like Roxane Gay (in her essay collection Bad Feminist) express disgust that every African American novel or movie seems to center on slavery. We shouldn’t forget slavery, or shrug it off as “a long time ago,” but African Americans have been doing things since Emancipation — and why not explore those stories? Stories that don’t necessarily teach us anything about the African American experience, like Coffee Will Make You Black by April Sinclair. Main character Stevie navigates life as a black girl in the 1960s, asking questions about her race and sexuality, but readers read her story, they don’t learn a Very Important Lesson. Could a lesson in life as a black teen girl taught a good lesson to readers? Sure — it’s not often a person like Stevie is put front-and-center in an adult novel. But is it Sinclair’s job to teach readers? I don’t think so.

Some of my favorite novels are ones that practically lack an ending (where the lesson usually is), but I’m satisfied nonetheless. In Jaimy Gordon’s wonderfully creative Bogeywoman, the beloved titular character sort of disappears at the end. I think she reappears in Gordon’s National Book Award-winning Lord of Misrule to work in a horse stable, but I don’t need this confirmed. Getting to know the teen as she moved from summer camp to mental institution to life as a run-away was enough fun for me. The Bogeywoman lives on in my heart, and I can imagine her elsewhere — I didn’t need her to learn a big lesson about why she was institutionalized and how to accept that she’s a lesbian in the 1970s when being LGBTQ was considered a mental illness.

More recently, Joe Jones by Anne Lamott left me feeling happy despite an ending that leaves the characters in place, as if a child playing with paper dolls were called to dinner. It’s more about the clever dialogue and unique characters than teaching readers. Sure, I wanted Louise to consider why she love Jon Jones even though she dumped him, and I wanted Willie to ask himself why he can’t see the relationships he has instead of mourning the ones that are over. That’s okay, though. We don’t know the endings of our own relationships once they’ve fractured, nor do most of us sit down and think about what we learned from our former friends, dates, and family members. We simply ingest their personalities while they’re with us.

Should a book teach adult readers something?

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85 comments

  1. Interesting topic. I don’t read fiction specifically to learn something, and, looking over the list I wrote last year of my fifty favourite novels, I found that about half had taught me something specific and half were just beautiful books full of people I liked spending time with. Certainly, I think that the act of reading opens people up to different perspectives and that is beneficial for developing empathy and understanding of nuance (at least for me), but that is a bit different from the books having a Designated Moral Lesson. I guess well-written books will normally inherently teach the reader something, simply by realising its characters well and presenting interesting or engaging subject matter – but maybe it doesn’t have to specifically be its goal.

    • I think sometimes I learn things from books that weren’t meant to be a lesson the author included, especially empathy. I do take those lessons into my life and workplace, and it makes a difference; I know because I’ve had people comment on ways I’ve been empathetic or conscientious (such as asking before hugging or offering the elevator before taking a group up the stairs).

  2. That is such an interesting question! I do like to learn something, or at least question something I’ve believed, when I finish a book. But I don’t judge a book’s quality by whether that happens. I think there are a lot of other ways in which a book can be either excellent or…not.

    • Your answer interested me, Margot, because your comfortable reading place is detective fiction, which I don’t associate with teaching someone. What might you learn in that genre? I’m interested!

      • It really depends on what you’re reading. For instance, in historical crime fiction, I learn about the era when the story takes place. In crime fiction from (or about) another culture, I learn about that culture. In crime fiction that’s morally ambiguous, I am encouraged to really think about what I believe.

  3. I love when I can learn something from a book, or see something from a new perspective, but I don’t think it should be necessary from every single read. The sheer joy of a good story shouldn’t be underestimated.

    • I wonder if people are distinguishing between a “Lesson Learned” and gaining empathy. They’re different, I think, as one is almost spelled out. Then again, I just finished a book in which the empathy I’m supposed to gain is so spelled out that it’s like a “Lesson Learned.”

  4. Great question. I read for entertainment. I’m not expecting to learn something from the books I read, but when I do, I love it. As a writer, I am not trying to teach anyone anything. I write to entertain. However, as frivolous as my books might be, one or two of them might give readers insight into the legal system that they didn’t have before.

    • Yes! You’ve captured what I’m going for, Amal. A book shouldn’t teach an obvious moral because readers see it a mile away, but if people broaden their perspectives, that’s a bonus.

  5. What an interesting post! I do read a lot simply for entertainment so don’t necessarily feel the need to close a book with an Important Lesson Learned. But I do like to be able to take something away that I hadn’t previously known or leave me thinking about it long afterwards.

  6. I think all books teach readers something, even if it’s not explicitly stated in big letters at the end. I read to experience other lives (also to be entertained.) I don’t think didactic fiction is especially attractive for adults but even when the author is just writing about every day life and relationships, usually there is something the reader can take away from it as knowledge. Now, others might disagree – I’m thinking about Christian fiction, for instance. Part of the appeal of that genre might be that it imparts lessons on living a good, Christian life, right? So perhaps readers of that genre would say yes, fiction should teach adults something. Just a thought.

    • Good point, Laila. I didn’t consider how a religious message might shape a reader’s perspective, teaching them something about leading a moral life. Christian fiction has a more direct message, which might be too forefront for me (I like to gather on my item what to take from books), but I know my grandma love Christian and Amish fiction because it teaches her about hard choices and good hearts. I never see Christian fiction on your blog. Do you read it?

  7. I’m not keen on the idea that fiction should teach me some kind of lesson. I do learn things from reading novels but its often about the culture of a country or some of its history. But any book that tries hard to push a particular message is not going to be one I really enjoy, I don’t feel I want to be lectured at.

  8. I don’t think every book has to teach you something. Yes, sometimes I am looking for insight into an issue or a different way of life, but sometimes I’m really just looking for a bit of escapism.

    • No one else has mentioned escapism as a rain to read fiction, so far, and I think escapism is different from entertainment. I know that I often feel like the internet is ready to scold us for our wrongdoings, so I can see why people might want to escape from lessons!

  9. It’s a good question. Should a novel have a moral? No. And modern novels that cover “issues” tend to annoy me. As we discussed in your last post, one reason to read is the quality of the writing. But I also like to read, often as an aside to the story being told, the author’s experience of other places and times.

    • The funny thing about novels designed to teach us they fail to recognize that life often leaves us without a moral. Things happen, we shrug, we move on–possibly (likely) making the same mistakes again. I think I mentioned in my review if The Gifts of the Body that it seemed likely a thinly veiled recreation of the author’s life, but that there are schools of literary theory that forbid readers from considering anything off the page in their analysis.

  10. I love the ideas in discussion posts; that’s one of the great things about blogging, right? (I’m still learning). You’re off to a great start but I’ll check out the blog you mentioned to learn more.

    I don’t think we have to learn something from everything. Well, let’s change that. Maybe we learn to listen to the voice of others (as you mentioned about your book by Sinclair). Sometimes we don’t listen enough….

          • Of course no one likes being told what to do, it’s all in the approach. If I feel like a book is judgmental and demanding that what’s being said, even if relevant or important, could be lost to the reader. I think about when I’m approached to do something, if I feel like someone is ridiculing me or treating me with unkindness and hostility I will shut down. I think for me as a reader, even if I might not agree with something that someone is saying, if the approach allows me to feel invited in to listen with understanding to gain insight, then I feel like we can still learn from the experience. Does that make sense or did I just ramble on and convince myself that it does. 😊

            • That makes sense, Shell. At it’s most basic, think of it this way: any time someone tells you that you HAVE to read a book or watch a movie, what do most people do? They refuse to read that book or watch that movie. I think we all know that if we go into a work with such high expectations and it lets us down, we feel weird about the person who recommended it and bad in general. I believe this same concept applies to anything: create an open dialogue, and people feel safe entering it.

              • Excellent point. I can think of the “must” read books from school and that I don’t felt I learned much from them at the time (yes I was still a kid but you know) and when I read the books now because I choose to so much more memorable and I can see and understand some of the lessons I should have learned but didn’t hold onto then

  11. Great topic! I’m not sure that every book needs to teach something. Sometimes I read for escape and lightness; I don’t need everything I read to have a heavy meaning or education in it. But, I also do find that even with my light reads I do come away with learning something from them. It could just be a new word, or something new about where/when the book took place, or even a different way of looking at something.
    So, to answer your question, no, I don’t think every book needs to teach us something as a rule, but I feel that every book CAN teach the reader something, whether that item is something heavy or life-changing or something as simple as a new phrase or a new place to visit or a new historical fact.

    • No one has mentioned learning new words yet, but that definitely happens. I just finished a collection of stories that is fairly above my vocab level, and I was constantly looking up words. I now know there is a word that means “divorced five times.”

      • Wow! There’s a specific word for that?! Amazing! I love looking up words I learn in books, but I’m terrible at actually remembering them later. If I am hand-writing my reading notes, I’ll write the word down in my notebook along with the sentence it was used in and it’s definition, but lately I’ve just been making notes on my phone, and I haven’t been writing down the words I learn to refer back to later.

        • Once in a great while, I’ll read a book and list and define every work in a notebook that I cannot define easily (nothing like, “Oh, I have an idea of what it means but I can’t explain it). It’s slow, but I’ll always pick up a few words from doing that.

  12. For me, the simple answer is “no”. But that’s not to say that I’m not pleased when they do teach me something – I just don’t feel they ought to have to. (Gosh, that’s a badly constructed sentence – sorry!) I quite often use that as a guide to what counts as “literary” fiction – if it tells me something about “the human condition”. But sometimes I just want a book that entertains me for a few hours, and I really don’t think those books are any less valuable. Sometimes my brain needs broccoli, but sometimes it needs chocolate ice-cream…

    • I really enjoy this crossover of literary quality and genre fiction that’s been happening in recent years. I’ve seen literary cross with horror, fairy tales, pulp, and westerns. Then again, I’m also with Stephen King when he says we should honor the types of books we loved as young people–horror, detective fiction, etc.–and not be afraid to read and write such books.

  13. Oh, that’s a good one.
    It depends on which genre I am reading and what I am ‘expecting’ to get out of it.
    I love nonfiction and when reading certain nonfiction books, I expect to learn something from them.
    On the other hand, when reading fiction, I just want to hear a good story. I enjoy reading character driven stories and I do expect their main protagonists to grow. I’m still debating if that would classify as a lesson or if it’s more part of the story line…
    The bottom line is: no, I don’t expect to learn when reading fiction. 🙂

    • Ah, good point! No one has brought up where nonfiction fits into this conversation. Even if I read a big autobiography, I expect to learn about the time. And how people felt in the context of their environment. it may be just one person’s perspective, but it does teach. Some of my favorite autobiographies are about people who lived during the Civil Rights movement, but were born quite a while before that. A good example would be Malcolm X, who was born in the 20s.

  14. Fascinating post! I don’t feel a book has to teach adult readers something by the time it ends, but I do think it still should be able to prompt meaningful discussion. Answers/lessons aren’t as important to me as are questions, I guess. And then, there are books that are just fun to read, which has value as well.

    • There are so many books still lingering in my head because the author didn’t tie things up in a ham-fisted way, nor did the author imply what I should think about the plot and the characters’ decisions. Now that I think about it, those are the books that I like the best intend to remember the best. Writing book reviews sure helps me remember what I read, mainly because I can go back and reread them, but it’s those books that don’t tell me what to think that I just sit there and think and think and think about, and that I remember vividly.

      • Yes, I definitely agree. A little subtlety on the part of the author goes a long way. Sometimes things can’t be resolved neatly, and there’s good reason for dwelling in ambiguity. Of course, there are also those authors who write vague endings, because they’ve written themselves into a corner and don’t know how to end the book. I’ve recently come across a few novels like that, like The Friend, and it’s almost as frustrating to me as a ham-fisted ending.

  15. Oohhh what a juicy topic! I love this idea. I think it’s always nice if a book teaches us something, but more importantly, I want a book (fiction or non-fiction) to give me a new perspective on things. That’s all. I read books to see outside of my own lense, and I think that’s why book readers like us tend to be more empathetic, because we are placed in someone else’s shoes on a regular basis through our reading choices.

    • I like this topic, too, because readers have taken it many ways. Some people want to become more empathetic, but I’m thinking more like a novel for adults that has a moral. In general, I wonder if books alone teach us empathy. I try to think about where I’ve learned to be a more thoughtful, conscientious person…….and honestly, it’s from social justice folks on social media. I take what I learn from them and think about it while I’m reading and apply it to life, but otherwise, a book won’t teach me nuanced empathy. I generally get, “Oh yes, this person totally like me also puts their clothes on in the morning” (I almost wrote put their pants on one leg at a time, but not everyone in various cultures wears pants).

  16. This reminds me of the question, “Should books be allowed to include controversial topics without a resolution that discusses those controversies?” I’ve wanted to make that post for a long time, but I’m a little scare because my opinion might be unpopular. Books are incredible. Sometimes, we find themes and lessons within literature. They can teach us a lot, but I don’t think it’s always necessary. I don’t think people should give books low ratings if it has something that is controversial and doesn’t teach a lesson about it at the end. I don’t think that’s the author’s job. Life is messy and screwed up, and I love when authors capture that. I think we should be more understanding of books like those. Lessons don’t always need to be taught. We are adults, and we have our own morals. We know what is right and wrong. If a book can open my mind, then I will probably love it even more. However, it’s not essential.

    • THAT is an amazing question, and I love how it’s worded. I do hope you write that post. Your opinion may be under, but if you write in the interest of hearing from your readers and open to discussion, you should be fine.

  17. Very interesting post! I’m happy you took the leap and decided to start doing more discussion posts. When you mentioned that you are shy, I was genuinely surprised. From your blog voice, you come across very secure in who you are. Are you shy in real life?

    I do not think you HAVE to learn anything from a book, BUT many of my favorite books are the ones where I did learn some type of lesson. I also really enjoy when an author explores the “gray areas” or gives the reader a fresh perspective. They may not change your opinion on a subject, BUT you do get a better understanding of the opposite perspective. Think Jodi Picoult.

    • Lately I’ve been shy about blogging because many of my long-time friends are disappearing. I don’t know if it’s me or if they have blogger burnout (most blogs survive 2-3 years), so I feel shy. In general, I’m a performative introvert. I prefer tiny groups or being alone, but when I’m in a social situation, I look like I fit in very well. I’m a total ham. However, when I get back home after those situations, I’m utterly exhausted.

      • I really don’t think it’s you.

        For me personally, when I disappear it isn’t burn out and but just timing. I just can’t dedicate the same amount of time to my blog throughout the year. Some months/seasons are busier than others for me & the family, so during those times I go MIA. I also started working a day or two a week, so that has also played a part for me.

        I’m sorry that friends are going MIA on you, but don’t think it is anything YOU’VE done.

  18. You’re lucky you catch Jackie at all, she just somehow doesn’t notice my messages 😀 although I guess you met her in person. And then, timezones. Anyway, I haven’t been to your blog in a while, nice theme! And I’m glad to see a discussion. And I’m going to share it 😀
    I don’t think you should always learn a lesson from reading. More than that, one book can teach two people two different lessons. Or it can teach one something, and do nothing for the other. Other books are just there to be related to, to sort of commiserate with you. Other books are there just to entertain you. I mean, we don’t ask if we should take away a lesson from every movie or Netflix show, do we.
    I love the examples you mention.

    • Hi, Evelina! Thanks for stopping by. Jackie and I are one time zone apart, so that does help. I do think we all get something different out of books, but there are books that tell us what to get out it, even adult books. That’s the kind of story I want to avoid.

  19. I don’t think all books have to teach us something but I certainly appreciate the ones that do. On the one hand, I do love to read for sheer enjoyment and escapism. On the other, I appreciate art’s potential to challenge, enlighten, and educate us and I appreciate a novel (or comic book or film or TV series or whatever) that will do that for me. I think it’s essential too, for our culture’s health and growth, to have art that will try to challenge those who experience it. We don’t always heed the lessons and warnings in our novels but I think it’s important they are there all the same.

    • I always wonder to what extent an artist is exploring his/her lived experiences in a work vs how much they’re trying to convince us to see something differently. Not sure if you’ve ever read Lidia Yuknavitch, but I’ve met her a few times. Her early art is very much her real life experiences, but it seems like her newer work is looking at larger themes that maybe affect her personally, but aren’t about her, per se. Thus, to me it feels like her early work teaches us about her, but her later work teaches us something bigger, more universal.

      • That makes sense, the evolution of the art and the artist would affect what they are saying/what we take away from it. Years ago I was at a presentation on the academic application of popular culture and the author who was presenting said we can never get back to the original moment of creation. Even a musician who plays their songs every night can never recapture that exact moment when the lyrics and music poured out of them. They are always experiencing it through the lens of where they are at the moment,

        As a result of this, the most important part of art is what we take from it. Regardless of the intent of the author for any lesson or message, what I find in the work is what affects me and my relationship to it. So, regardless of authorial intent, if I don’t find that in my experience of the work it won’t affect me.

        I found myself thinking of this as I was reading your piece and your reply above. Because this facet of art fascinates me! I grant the point and I agree with it. However, I still like to know what the author intends and, to a degree, that shapes my experience of the work. (For example, I know George Lucas wanted to create modern mythology so I see his Star Wars films through that lens. Disney just wants fun movies, so I see their Star Wars films through that lens.) So while my subjective experience of a book, song, film, whatever is my primary lens through seeing it, this question of author’s intent or lessons or whatever is one I can’t help but play with in my mind.

        • This conversation makes me want to be back in grad school talking with other students about how we interpret a work and through which lens. My favorite to play with was deconstructionism, though I felt like it was the least academic. Basically, you see what you want to see, and so long as you argue that point, that’s what it is. Students would come up with all sorts of wild ideas, like “Hills Like White Elephants” was actually a story of a man trying to convince a woman to get a breast augmentation.

          • That is certainly an interesting read. But I agree with you; I love participating in those discussions of a work! I teach a high school course ‘Star Wars and Contemporary Myth Making’ and another one on religious symbolism (explicit and implicit) in popular culture. That’s always the first discussion I have with my students – getting them to see the value in their own insights (even if they are the only one who sees it that way) so they are confident to share openly in our discussions and in their writing. Once there’re ready to share how/what they see, the fun really begins :). We build out from there to authorial intent and other more “professional” reads. There is a part of me that misses being IN the class though, as you said. There’s nothing really quite like those discussions with equally excited and impassioned (and equally nerdy) academics :).

            • Your high school course sounds like college courses I’ve taken/taught. At the last college where I taught, we were developing a course that introduces students to the liberal arts, and the first goal was to get them to see Star Wars or Harry Potter as works that contain the basic elements of storytelling in all novels. That was supposed to be one class and then power ahead from there.

              • Wow, thank you! This means a lot. My hope is that I’m helping to get them ready to do this sort of deconstruction and analysis when they get to college, or even in their English classes through the rest of high school. I’ve always loved popular culture for this. It’s a way to hook the student and get them engaged with this sort of thinking and, if the kids can learn to look deeper into the stuff the watch/read/listen to for fun, I hope it shows them there’s a lot more going on in the world around them than they may’ve noticed at first glance.

  20. This is fascinating – both your post and the discussion. I guess I do much of my reading to learn, either other people’s lives in novels or non-fiction stuff. But also I do just read stuff for escapism, as other people watch TV etc (well I watch TV as well, but not much) and I thnk that’s OK as long as you don’t ONLY do that. Although any reading is OK really, right???

    • The quality of reading is a whole different discussion! If you read 100 Harlequins, are you a different person? And if that is the judgment of whether or not someone must learn something after reading a novel, then the answer would be yes, yes they should learn something for their novel to be considered quality.

      • Fair enough. Although actually I know from a charity shop manager here that Asian ladies who are learning English buy lots and lots of Harlequns etc to help them with their English, so in that case yes …! I love this interesting post and discussion.

  21. *inserts 2 cents here*
    I think that books will always instill a lesson to us, sometimes we’re very aware of it, sometimes we’re not and then we just realize it later on… I believe that in everything we read, we always get something from it, even the ones that are just for “comical” or entertainment purposes only! 🙂

  22. Love the topic. I don’t read necessarily to learn something, but I often do learn. I do think we place a huge burden on marginalized authors to educated the rest of us about about race, sexuality, disabilities, etc. I’ve seen many black authors talk about how black pain is used as a selling point, how publishers are drawn largely to stories where black people suffer. They aren’t given room to write more frivolously. Maybe like so many things, there needs to be more of a balance. It’s important that we have books that teach us something, but also ones that just let people exist, to have something as simple and uncomplicated as a happy ending.

    • Wow, Alicia, these are excellent points that no one else has made. We didn’t really get into WHO the author is and what the reader or publishing company expect him/her/them to do. I’ve heard more about audiences wanting to see black people suffer so they can have a big redemption at the end of the film and white people feel good (because typically a white character plays some role in the black person’s redemption). Thank you for reminding me of this ugly corner of publishing, Alicia. I’ll pay more attention.

      • I often hear that the reason certain stories about racism are so well received by white audiences is because they make them feel good, make them believe they would never act like the racist people on screen. It just further feeds into the false narrative that racism is always blatant and intentional.

        • Melanie you’ve initiated a really good discussion, I’ve been watching it flow across my screen for days. I can’t help stepping in again to agree with Alicia (Alicia, I’m an old white guy in Australia) that that is exactly how I feel about To Kill a Mockingbird – that it enables white people to say ‘see, we can do the right thing’ when Harper Lee was really saying that racism is everywhere, as is finally made clear in Go Set a Watchman.

          • If you are interested in learning more about Latinx writers and their characters, Alicia’s blog is especially good to follow. I don’t know anyone reading more diversely than she. Tomorrow I am posting a follow-up discussion to this one; it’s about “garbage” books.

        • I’d love to read a discussion post about this. Maybe one of your Kernels of Nonsense? (though nonsense seems like the wrong word). Or, have you thought about reviewing your books through this lens? I know you said you’re in a slump; maybe a different way of reviewing that lets you really demonstrate how knowledgeable you are will boost you up?

  23. I love learning new things when I read, or thinking about things from a different perspective, but I like it much better when it’s not the point of the book – when it’s the side effect of the drug rather than the reason for taking it.

    This has been a great discussion – I don’t really have anything new to add!

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