Novels of Ideas

I stumbled across a lovely phrase that really stuck with me in a Crash Course video the other day: Novels of Ideas.

A novel of ideas (which I shall be calling NOI for the sake of simplicity), according to John Green, is a novel that is “primarily about its ideas” rather than being about the story itself. This includes books such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, George Orwell’s 1984, and many more. Now what do all of these books have in common besides being a NOI? I hate them.

“A novel of ideas is only as good or as bad as its ideas.”

– John Green

I must agree with the above sentiment from John Green, which is expressed in the video that inspired this blog post/rant/discussion. A NOI is, after all, written to teach a moral and therefore is better to be read in philosophy class rather than read for fun. It wants to teach you something, is a genre (overwhelming) written by old white males, and is (thankfully) going out of style in more recent years. It seems that today NOI are being published overwhelmingly in the Christian Literature genre. In these novels there is a very easy to find ‘flaw’ in the main character, and, once it is resolved, she (because that is almost always who the main character is) is able to settle down with a Good Christian husband and lead a Good Christian life. This is a bit different from NOI where often there were religious themes, however, there was seldom such a happy ending. (Please don’t think I’m mocking any religion by comparing it to NOI, I am not, I am however, not a fan of Christian Lit.)

Another thing that could be compared to NOI (and, for that matter, Christian Lit) are the ancient epics which tell tales of humanity and its many, many, many flaws (take for example The Odyssey by Homer where the main character messes up constantly, has PTSD, murders a ton of people, and is still regarded as a great hero). Epics were written to tell tales, but at the same time they were meant to teach important lessons (because many ancient religions lacked a ‘main’ religious text similar to The Bible or the Quran, people had to read into the texts to see how they were supposed to act. As such you could justify almost any action in Ancient Greece, including sleeping with your mother (I’m looking at you Oedipus).

I believe a NOI is not the same as a satire. A NOI takes itself very seriously and thinks it is an interesting work, a satire, on the other hand, does not take itself too seriously (on the outside), and knows when to take a break from the lesson and throw in some fun. At the end of the day the author of a novel of ideas is – for better or for worse – trying to impose their moral views on you rather than just tell you a story.

“Some books are undeservedly forgotten. None are undeservedly remembered.”

– W.H. Auden

Is that a bad thing? Of course not, there are many books that both tell a story and teach a lesson. Harry Potter by JK Rowling comes to mind. Harry Potter is, at its core, a book about the most true form of magic: friendship and love. But very few would argue that it is not still a good story. The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien teaches about the value of friendship and over coming differences and the strengths of the underdog. George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire teaches the very true lesson that incest will not end well and rape will be ignored as long as the perpetrator is a good looking or powerful man. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins manages to tackle some of the same issues as 1984 – like governmental power and media bias and corruption – and still tell a very interesting story at the same time.

So, now for the big question: what do you think about a so-called Novel of Ideas?



This Week’s Tag Thursday is by LibroLiv

Save the Classics is a tag with a goal in mind: to support the creation of iClassics, an app that will continue to inspire a love of reading in children through technology. You can support the project on KickStarter!

What is your favorite classic book?

The Lord of the Rings
The Count of Monte Cristo

This is really hard, because I want to say The Lord of the Rings, however, some people don’t classify it as a “classic” largely because its not old enough to be out of copy right (which is the usual age of ‘classic’ books) so I’m going to cheat and give two answers. The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien and The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas. They’re two very different books, but they’re both very good for their own reasons.

The Count of Monte Cristo was probably the first classic (other than LOTR) that I read and really, really loved, and one of the few books that I read for a class and then read again (and then watched the 2002 movie which I have mixed feelings about! Its a good movie, but does not stay true to the book at all.)

The Lord of the Rings is my all time favorite story-world (if I could move to Middle Earth I would without thinking twice!). However, I hesitate to say its my favorite largely because I feel like its not the best written book ever. Literally nerds, don’t hate me! Hear me out! Tolkien was undeniably a genius, but he wasn’t (first and foremost) an author. He didn’t write for the sake of writing, or even to tell a story, he wrote to create a world for the languages he had created.

If your life was a classic, what would it be?

I’m not sure. It probably wouldn’t be, its not that interesting, unfortunately!! Maybe something by John Steinbeck or one of those other authors whose works are famous because they depict ordinary life brilliantly, which is a nice way of saying its boring and not much happens.

Full disclaimer: the only Steinbeck I’ve read in completion was Of Mice and Men and I hated it.

With which writer from the past would you like to have dinner?

JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis

Yeah, its kind of cheating to put down two different authors as my answer, however, since they knew each other in real life (and taught together at Oxford University), I’d say its safe to put them both.

Did you know: Treebeard from The Lord of the Rings is based on Lewis, and the Professor from The Chronicles of Narnia (the one who owns the wardrobe) is based on Tolkien? Not to mention that the Prancing Pony Inn is in Bree (in The Fellowship of the Ring), and in The Horse and his Boy there is a ‘prancing pony’ named Bree?

Which classic literary character best describes you?

The Cheshire Cat
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

The Cheshire Cat from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol (and his counterpart in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland), is like a walking quote-generator and has some of my favorite lines in all of literature.

“Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality.”

“I’m not crazy, my reality is just different than yours.”

“Which way you ought to go depends on where you want to get.”

He’s also different, very different (even, it seems, by Wonderland standards) and he embraces it. I’d like to take a leaf from Chessie’s book, and learn to love who I am without feeling the need to change to fit what society wants. I’ve read (and seen) several versions of Alice over the years, and so far I’ve loved every reincarnation of Chessie, from the original mad cat to the Assassin with seven lives from Frank Beddor’s The Looking Glass Wars.

Whats the first classic that you read?

The Hobbit

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were the first classics read to me (right after my mom read me Harry Potter (which is technically not a classic….. yet) and they were also the first classics I attempted on my own. I can’t remember when, exactly, I read the Hobbit, but by third grade I distinctly remember working on the Fellowship of the Ring (only to have a teacher inform me that “you’re not really reading, you’re just turning pages” thanks for the vote of confidence). I really was reading it, although, when I reread it a few years ago I realized exactly how little I understood it!!

Which classic book could be the best gift?

The Nutcracker

Everyone knows the classic Christmas Ballet, and the book always better (and in this case, crazier!). There are two classic versions, I’ve read both and I can vouch for either. The best gift would be a set of both.

The very original tale is The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by the Germanic Romanic Author ETA Hoffman and is a fascinating (if rather creepy, my high school librarian always did call Hoffman the father of modern horror) satire of Russia society at the time it was written. Marie Stahlbaum (Stahlbaum meaning “steel toe”) is brought a wonderous gift by her Godfather, whose name, Drosselmeyer, means “to shake or stir things up.”

Alexander Dumas ‘translated’ (and I say that very loosely) the tale into French, while actually almost completely rewriting the tale. His The Nutcracker is what Tchaikovsky turned into the ballet, so its far more recognizable. This is where the ballet acquired its ending, with Marie (or Klara/Clara) choosing to stay in our world (which is certainly not what happens in Hoffman’s, but I won’t spoil that for you).

If the background story – which I’ve loosely mentioned – interests you at all, check out NPR’s No Sugar Plums Here: The Dark, Romantic Roots of The Nutcracker.

Reasons I Love My Best Friend

Top Ten Tuesday is a Weekly Meme Held by Broke and Bookish

June 7: Ten Reasons I Love X — could be a certain book, character, author, your indie bookstore, a fandom, a tv show, reading, a hobby, a genre. Honestly anything you want to gush about.

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My Best Friend’s Favorite Books

This is a cute thing thing that I saw on The Bookshelf Of Emily J a very long time ago and I decided to do it about my best friend. The reason it took so long for it to be published? I waited until my friend and I were going on our Senior Trip to Disney World!

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Disney Book Tag

Today I’ve decided to try the Disney Book Tag by Katytastic because I absolutely love Disney. As usual no one invited me to try this, I just decided to and invited myself AND I’m going to Disney World! I’m scheduling this to be published during my trip.

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Books I Feel Differently About After Time Has Passed

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme held by Broke and Bookish

May 24:  Ten Books I Feel Differently About After Time Has Passed (less love, more love, complicated feelings, indifference, thought it was great in a genre until you became more well read in that genre etc.)

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The Book Courtship Tag

I’m going to say that DrizzleandHuricaneBooks tagged me when they did this a while back, because its such a good tag that I immediately drafted it to do for myself. Its originally from Hi I Love Books.

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