Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The joy of reading long books

Do you like to read lengthy novels, tomes that could double as a doorstop? Do you have the patience? Or do you prefer brief, pithy works that just get on with it and don't tease you along for four hundred pages before delivering a (sometimes unsatisfactory) conclusion? 

There's something to be said for both and I am on record as enjoying both the long and the short of it, when it comes to novels. I stand by that. The book I most recently finished, Nutshell by Ian McEwan, was a brief, polished gem, as most if not all of his books are. The one I'm reading now, In the Woods by Tana French, is more than twice its length, but just as polished in its own way. Every word counts.

And that, in a nutshell (pardon the reference), is what I like in books: Every word needs to count. There should be no extraneous, superfluous meandering. Meandering is fine, but the writer needs to have an end in mind and know where she's taking us.

I was led to consider this by reading a recent interview with librarian and author Nancy Pearl in which she extolled the joys of the long book.  She speaks of getting lost in a big book that gives you a long vacation from your own life. I would add that it gives the reader a chance to "live" another different life through the characters that exist on the page. One can become so entranced by such a book that we don't want it to end. That is a good thing. (Of course, carried to extremes it can become a pathology.)

Pearl also addresses the question of series of books and whether reading a series counts as reading one long book. I would tend to say yes because the story continues and the characters continue to act within those tales, but Pearl makes the distinction between certain series such as Sue Grafton's mysteries which have separate, individual arcs, and something like George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series which she says simply add up to one long (very, very, very long!) book.  She says it is easier to get sucked into a series because each entry feels bite-sized, and I can assuredly attest to that since I've been sucked in so many of them and continue to be sucked into more all the time.

But I do wonder if one of the reasons that series - with their bite-sized books - are so popular today is that we have somewhat lost our ability to concentrate on the long form of work, but we still crave losing ourselves in those extended stories that go on and on. There are so many distractions in our modern lives that I think it is possible that the longer works don't get the attention that they should.

I well remember my teenage summers when I would totally lose myself in some big book and "live" there all summer. Two that stand out in my mind are War and Peace and Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop. I read and reread those books until I practically wore them out and had long passages memorized. Do teenagers do that today? Well, none among my acquaintance anyway. Is that a good or bad thing? I've no idea.

It was interesting to read that Pearl admits to not being able to make herself read some long books. She mentions Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, and I totally understand that. I read the first section, Swann's Way, but have never been able to make myself go on. For the reasons, you can refer back to my third paragraph about "extraneous, superfluous meandering." One can consume only so many madeleines before wanting to throw up.

And does Pearl ever give up on a book? She has a rule for that. She calls it the "Rule of 50."
If you're 50 years old or younger, give every book about 50 pages before you decide to give it up. if you're over 50, which is when time gets shorter, subtract your age from 100 and the result is the number of pages you should read before deciding whether or not to quit. If you're 100 years old or older, you get to judge the book by its cover, despite the dangers of doing so.

So far, I'm not able to follow that rule. I finish every book that I start. Maybe by the time I'm 100, though, I'll feel comfortable judging a book by its cover. 

6 comments:

  1. How interesting! I don't judge a book by its cover, but do so by title; if the title is vague, I don't pick it up.
    Before blogging, and yes, even in my teenage years, I used to read long books. I have read and re-read three times The Pillars of the Earth, and Ivanhoe. Since blogging, due to posting constraints, I have low tolerance for books longer than 600 pages, except if I get sucked into the story and forget that the book is longer.
    I give books typically 100 pages to develop; if they don't by then, I put them aside for a later time, so I have sampled a big portion of my library before settling on one book. I usually know within twenty pages if I want to proceed reading; usually it has to do with writing styles. Some books are within 600 pages but I can't seem to make progress, thus I debate whether to proceed or to tackle it at a later date.

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    1. So you have the "Rule of 100." At least you are more generous than my husband who lives by the "Rule of 20!"

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    2. That's harsh! But by 20 I already have an idea if it'll be easy reading or not. :-)

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    3. Well, he is pretty harsh and he has no patience with bad books! Life it too short he says.

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  2. I also loved long books right up into my thirties. This year I came back. In fact, it has been a year of long books for me. Perhaps because I am now retired, I feel less pressed for time. I just finished The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya, a novel set in Russia in the post WWII years, and translated from the Russian. 573 pages. Not hard to read at all but I got that wonderful experience of becoming immersed in a world and of living with characters for years and years. When I finished it, I hardly knew what to do with myself. And yes, I have known teens, who are now in their 20s, who read long, long books all the time.

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    1. I'm delighted to know that there are teens who can still lose themselves in a long book! I'm afraid it is becoming a lost art.

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