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Your Basic Bore, or “The Literature of Exhaustion”


Look: I read the Bible when I was ten, the whole thing. I don’t remember much. The reading was the product of some weird compulsion or another (I wasn’t religious and neither was my family). The length played some part; I was very thrifty then. Why buy a 200 page book when you can get one at 400 pages for the same price? That’s just stupid! My limited allowance lead to some warped thinking (Stephen King! Why read The Shining when It‘s so much longer? Ooooh, The Stand!), but I don’t blame my parents. Subsequently, I read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Gulag Archipelago, The Brothers Karamazov (what is with the Russians?), the first two parts of A la recherche du temps perdu, oh and there’s Dickens, much beloved because come to late, I think — Bleak House, Little Dorritt, Our Mutual Friend (please read them, reader, don’t do as I do); I read Pynchon, all of it, in a single semester of college (something I will always regret, as I haven’t been able to read him since — we read a book a week (you read V in a week and let me know how it works out for you)); Moby-Dick, Don Quixote, the DecameronTristram Shandy, The Magic Mountain, The Arabian Nights, Manuscript Found at Saragossa; I read The Sot-Weed Factor, and, last year, The Last Samurai and George Mills, among others. This is just off the top of my head — I’ve read a few books, so you’ll excuse me if I can’t remember them all, and I’m too lazy to go looking through old lists and in boxes.

So, what I’m trying to say is: I’ve given it every chance I could reasonably be expected to give it, the big book. And you know what? Some of those books listed above are books I’ve loved so much I’ve reread them. I’ve read Don Quixote at least four times, Manuscript Found at Saragossa probably four or five, Moby-Dick, the Decameron, The Bros. K. — all reread several times. But there is something about great length that produces a corresponding trepidation (repulsion?) in me.

Some will blanch at the thought of accidentally opening a “memoir,” scramble cockroach-like at the dawning of the label “poetry”; others will balk at books with the words “Paranormal Romance” on their back covers. Me? Show me something, anything, above 300 pages, and I will not only turn the other cheek, I’ll turn the other other cheek and keep turning until I’m facing some more human-sized book. Call me a heathen if you want. Every time I start one of those books, I rue it. It’s an awful thing, one of those “keep-it-to-yourself” kinds of things, which is why I’m writing about it here.

Give me two books, any two books, and I’ll choose the 200 pager over the 500 pager every single time. I don’t mean that I’ll prefer it, but that I’ll read it first. Honestly, I might never know about that 500 pager, because I’ll avoid it. Those are the books in my library that I will die without having read.

Some stories take longer. I get it. I do. And there is in the long novel an (desirable) element of wearing-down, of wearing-out, of living-in, of living-out that can’t be accomplished any other way. It’s a wonderful thing, or can be. But some people like short stories (okay, okay, okay — I said “some” people; they exist, I’m sure of it), right? And not necessarily novels? And the short story has made, maybe through its spurning (“Get in touch when you have a novel,” the agents say), a genre for itself. So why not the short novel, too? Between 40- and, let’s say, 70- thousand words. Even that upper boundary seems like a stretch, so let’s cut it back just a little, to, like, 67K. I’ll even gracefully cede the territory to the long-winded. Let them have their “novels.” I’ll be a short-novelist, and a short-novel reader.

You know when you’re at a party and there’s exactly one person you know there? So you talk to that person until you run out of things to talk about, and then, if you’re as uninteresting as I am, that person looks for the nearest other person he or she knows and leaves you standing there? (Is that just me?) What if there was no one else there that person knew? And what if you both had to stand there, blathering on at each other until you both just wanted to off yourselves? (And you wonder why I never say much in conversation.) That’s what it feels like to me, the big book. “Enough already,” I want to say. “I’ve had enough.” The white flag comes out around page 300. I’m conscious of wasting other people’s time, maybe pathologically so; I’ll cut off a conversation if I feel I’ve said too much. Drives my wife crazy. I’ll walk away. I like quiet. I hate TV. Jesus! Just give me some time to think.

I don’t want to devote a lifetime to a book, or maybe I haven’t found the book to devote a lifetime to yet. But a week, a month, a quarter, even a semester? I do it, enthusiastically, over and over. I like books I can finish in a sitting — I’m not saying I do, just that I like that I could if I wanted to. That’s what I mean by human-sized. I like a bird’s-eye view. I like form and structure. I like maps. I get lost in big books. Some people like that. I’m always assembling in my head. I’m a synthesist. I get confused when the best I can do is trudge on. I get frustrated. I don’t want to be lost. I’m more Daedalus than Theseus. Is that it? That I’d rather see the plan for the labyrinth than be thrown into it? Maybe that’s all it is.

I wasn’t going to reach out to the old “so many books, so little time” line, but Burgess, I’m sure, would:

I like big books, some of them. A few anyway. But I probably won’t read too many. This one, now, J R by William Gaddis — what’s the big (see what I did there?) deal? What’s it cost me? There were times when the answer would have been “nothing.” I would have loved every minute of it; usually, after about a half-hour of reading J R, I do, I love the damn thing despite itself, despite how awkwardly it sits in my hand, despite how little progress I seem to be making, but that feeling fades when my eyes turn to the pile of to-reads next to me, or when I think of the things I’m supposed to be writing or the anything else that I’m supposed to be doing. See: that’s just it. If it were the one guy at the party I knew, and we could both just stand there, quietly, I’d be glad to know it. But instead it’s the guy who keeps creeping up on me in the middle of other conversations and boxing everyone else out, like I’m the ball and it’s Charles Barkley in a Sixers uniform. It can’t help but be that way; I can’t just leave it to attend to these other things — I forget too easily what exactly I’ve read. A week or two later, coming back to it, I don’t quite remember what I’m picking up. There is no pause button for Theseus. So he marches on, letting the thread out as he goes. What about me? Do I have enough thread? I often feel I’m at the end of my rope. There’s something unsustainable about it, this forced attention, and we both (the novel and I) get frustrated with its demands. I’ve got other things to do. It wants my full attention. The Bible? Remember that it’s a compendium, an omnibus or, really, an anthology, because it was written by more than one hand. There are “books” there, plural. The first one, Genesis, is just 67 pages long in the Oxford Bible I have here on my shelf. Really just a novella.

All right. Sorry, everyone: I’ve become that bore; J R‘s rubbing off on me. I have to go. But I’ll leave you with this: it’s a species of arrogance, the big book. It’s not a request to put aside the other things in your life, it’s a demand. I’m not saying that it isn’t sometimes rewarding, but rewarding or not, it’s arrogant. I have a problem with authority. I talk back. I can’t help it. Even this, this post — this is me, not reading J R. I don’t do well with pushy people. I hate salesmen. Sorry. Not interested; thanks for stopping by. Something’s on the stove. Someone’s on the phone. I was just getting into the shower. I’ve got to be somewhere else right now.

45 thoughts on “Your Basic Bore, or “The Literature of Exhaustion”

  1. I have the same impulses with regards to big and small books. I much prefer smaller ones. I’ve become almost strictly a short novel/novella reader. My question to you, Gabe, is whether the impulse extends itself to your writing as well. Do you imagine yourself writing past 67K for a project? Do you, in the fog of writing something that feels like it wants to extend itself, conceive of work as having the possibility of a middle/large range of novel? Curiosity.

    1. Well, Nick, never say never, I guess, but empirical data suggests I’ve put my money where my mouth is: the novel coming out at the end of the year is 55K, the one I may have just finished with billowed to 60K at its gassiest, but has more or less settled near 45K. Would I ever try for longer? I don’t know; I do see the advantages of the form/shape, but I feel like I would be fighting myself tooth and nail, especially when it comes to editing (that 60K version lost 40K in a single round of revision; it just felt flabby). I don’t know why anyone would want to hear that much from me.

      Non sequitur: I would add to your list (short novel/novel) the even more often orphaned “long story.” Not quite a novella — or a novella in all but name — but still a comfortable and beautiful space. The title story of Gary Lutz’s last collection, Divorcer, Vinnie Wilhelm’s “Fauntleroy’s Ghost,” Joanna Howard’s “The Tartan Detective,” Yuriy Tarnawsky’s “mini-novels.” I wrote about some of those about a year ago, over at Uncanny Valley, in a post I am just now noticing covers a closely-allied subject. I seem to be a little obsessed. Only a little though.

  2. Interesting post, Gabe. I think you’re talking about literary profiling, and your own discomfort with books that are perceived threats to… something. Your reading safety? Your sense of propriety?

    I used to write short stories, and plays before that, so it’s not like I think the short form is dirt now that I concentrate on novels. The self-aggrandizing Year of the Short Story, however, does seem like the literary equivalent of a UNESCO 365-day cause married to public relations. If you want arrogance, look there.

    Melville, Gaddis, Proust, Musil, and Pynchon — they have great ambition. Give me those who break through the barriers, or crash those parties, any time over those who are hemmed in by fearfulness masquerading as economy.

    1. I love “hemmed in by fearfulness masquerading as economy,” Jeff, though I think it runs the risk of derogating ambitious, barrier-breaking short novels, of which there are many.

      I plod on, you know? Page 600 of J R, just today. I’m not looking for flag-waving here, I don’t expect a parade; the book’s more than worth the trouble. But my tolerance for such page counts is low. It might be profiling. Still, I think perhaps there’s something else to it.

    2. I get it and I don’t get it, because it is so.

      I asked Big Other why a short work wasn’t ambitious? in the old days and as in the old days, it garnered many more comments: http://bigother.com/2010/07/01/why-isnt-a-short-work-considered-ambitious/

      That may be of interest. Maybe it’s all a question of spacial relations–some people are programmed to be overwhelmed by the big, they spent hours in Moby Dick, there’s more info, more to remember. You see a movie in the theater, it’s twenty by fifty feet of image, the sound surrounds, no other light, no distraction, the movie works you over. Bergman on youtube doesn’t have a chance. But I’m sure there are some people who would say, You know that little poem by Stevens in Harmonium? There’s not a day goes by I don’t think about it.

      Everyone’s favorite John Gardner said one has to write good short scenes and build up to writing a string of long scenes together, maybe that is why we are eternally in the Year of the Short Story (that and that Gardener’s two how to write books consistently outsell Gaddis, Gass, Coover, Elkin, Barth, and Hawkes put together, Don B’s a bit too popular) Maybe Gaddis would disagree as he said:

      “I don’t know if you ever saw a review of J R by a fellow named John Gardner, who should have been shot, and finally he was . . . he was taken from us.” http://www.williamgaddis.org/nonfiction/interviewmcbf.shtml

      I again ran into a stranger who read The Recognitions the other day. It’s about Gnosticism, he said. What’s wrong with today? Virtual reality is here, and read Jean Baudrillard. He then had me read a sentence of Harold Bloom’s Agon about the Abyss. For all Bloom’s bluster, I think when he goes we will have wished he hadn’t.

    3. I get it and I don’t get it, because it is so.

      I asked Big Other why a short work wasn’t ambitious? in the old days and as in the old days, it garnered many more comments: http://bigother.com/2010/07/01/why-isnt-a-short-work-considered-ambitious/

      That may be of interest. Maybe it’s all a question of spacial relations–some people are programmed to be overwhelmed by the big, they spent hours in Moby Dick, there’s more info, more to remember. You see a movie in the theater, it’s twenty by fifty feet of image, the sound surrounds, no other light, no distraction, the movie works you over. Bergman on youtube doesn’t have a chance. But I’m sure there are some people who would say, You know that little poem by Stevens in Harmonium? There’s not a day goes by I don’t think about it.

      Everyone’s favorite John Gardner said one has to write good short scenes and build up to writing a string of long scenes together, maybe that is why we are eternally in the Year of the Short Story (that and that Gardener’s two how to write books consistently outsell Gaddis, Gass, Coover, Elkin, Barth, and Hawkes put together, Don B’s a bit too popular) Maybe Gaddis would disagree as he said:

      “I don’t know if you ever saw a review of J R by a fellow named John Gardner, who should have been shot, and finally he was . . . he was taken from us.- at Gaddis site

      I again ran into a stranger who read The Recognitions the other day. It’s about Gnosticism, he said. What’s wrong with today? Virtual reality is here, and read Jean Baudrillard. He then had me read a sentence of Harold Bloom’s Agon about the Abyss. For all Bloom’s bluster, I think when he goes we will have wished he hadn’t.

      1. Oh, well Greg, your question was more provocative, I guess. (I’m glad that you linked to it.) I didn’t intend for this one to be so but maybe I was just cranky when I wrote it.

        Some people like arrogance in others (so much so that we euphemize it: “bold,” “ambitious,” “energetic,” etc.). I don’t fault them for it and, despite my term of choice, I certainly don’t fault the works that display it. It’s a human trait, and a necessary one. And there are short works, those of Thomas Bernhard, for example, that display a similar arrogance in their claims on the attention of the reader (though, obviously, for a shorter period of time). But I don’t respond well to it; I never have. And rather than fight against it, I run from it, I avoid it.

        If there are those out there who want to say these books are “demanding” instead, fine, they’re “demanding,” “challenging,” whatever you want. I would beg a little more of their attention though: when applied to a fellow human being, “demanding” isn’t a compliment, any more than “arrogant” is. Nor, for that matter, is “challenging.” Dear reader, if it is “arrogant” you balk at above, take it for the compliment it could be, rather than the insult it might seem. It is meant only as description.

        1. Gabe, hi. In case you think I’m being euphemistic, I’ll restate something: I like novelists who have a grand scheme that requires space and time to reveal. Occasionally that requires three or five volumes.

          I also like poets and the writers of shorter works that do the same. For instance, McElroy’s collection, Night Soul and Other Stories, contains dense works that are short (especially compared to some of his novels). But they do what a very good novel does. And of course, just as you’d never say–I believe–that all short work is automatically good, I’d never say that all long books are automatically good.

          But we seem to be in a time where length frightens, oppresses, or irritates people, and we turn on the thing that provokes those feelings rather than look at ourselves.

          Maybe what’s arrogance to some is considered fascist to others, or controlling.

          I know demanding people, and some of them are pains. High-maintenance. But if they’re high performance too, that goes some way to balance things off.

          1. No of course not, and I hope that you didn’t think I was putting words into your mouth, Jeff. (And, yes, your instinct is right: I wouldn’t say that all short work is good, concise, ambitious, demanding, or anything else. I love monoliths, but I’m terrible at deploying them.)

            I hope that that’s what this was, a look at myself; I mean, that’s what I meant to do with it. (Myself — the inexhaustible subject. Sorry. Forgive me the forum — I honestly didn’t think I would get any response, so this conversation has been a very pleasant surprise.) Length is a barrier for me; I’ll admit it. It’s not intimidation I feel, but I’m still not sure what it is. If I recognized it, could I somersault over it? I don’t know. I feel it most in regards to things like The Man Without Qualities, which I started but could not come close to finishing, or The Sleepwalkers, something I’ve meant to read for some time, even something like La Medusa or, well, The Tunnel, books that, despite my protestations to the contrary, I am determined not to leave unread.

            1. I wonder, Gabe, what your reaction is to something long that’s not so… literary (and yes, all written things are literary, but you know what I mean). For instance, Burroughs’ Martian series of 13 books (the last takes place on Jupiter, but still…) might be considered ‘long’ but it might not make the same demand as Musil. (Well, that would most likely be a definite difference.) Or that girl and her hornet’s nest. Would you/do you feel the same when reading lighter-weight books that are sequential?

              You’re getting a lot of comments. Clearly, this is a subject of some interest to people. Good for you.

              1. Series, I think, fall under the heading of serials (they would), which I mentioned somewhere here, under the guise of talking about Boz, whom I love. Why not consider Bleak House a series of five 200 page novels, collected under one cover? Except that the Martian books have not been so collected, maybe (though I’m sure they have, and, if not, there’s bound to be a poorly-produced Kindle omnibus edition), why not consider them a (single) novel? I am just as reluctant to begin them — for instance, I have long wanted to read Gene Wolfe’s Sun serieses (New Sun, Long Sun), but I cannot get up enough steam to get over the fact that I’ll be reading for thousands of pages. For some readers, like Suzanne and Rob here, that’s the appeal, but for me, well, what to say apart from what’s already been said? And here I am, writing a trilogy. Jeff: I’m a mess.

                1. First, they’re 11 books, not 13. My bad memory thanks to a wicked cold.

                  What if we thought of writing a long book, or a short one, or a short story, as choosing a technique, like we would choose foreshadowing? We invented genres, so surely we can re-imagine how we regard the length of a piece.

                  My one book out takes place in a particular fictional city; another novel I wrote also takes place there; and a shorter piece underway also uses the same rough locale. They’re not a trilogy, it was simply handy to go this route. Currently I’m also working on a 65,000-70,000 word book set somewhere far more real. The length is determined by what I have to say, just like if I needed to speak from this or that point of view. Length is a functional tool; structure is content, as Sorrentino said. Does that help?

                  1. The common cold is one of the oldest of narratives; Virginia Woolf, at least, thought it deserved an epic. Me? I’ve got allergies and that’ll have to do.

                    Foreshadowing, of course, isn’t possible without measure, without length. Suspense is a function of how many pages a given book has, at least partly — here I am, page 703 of J R, and I am feeling an urgency to find out what happens I haven’t yet felt through 703 pages. Because I know that it is going to end, and soon.

                    And just like those other things you mention, I think length is an attribute that one chooses, though I have a feeling some writers will always be agnostic on that issue. I mean, I’ve heard writers say things like, “Well, I didn’t know that this wanted to be a novel until page 30,” and I believe that they were being genuine (even if not entirely self-aware). For me though, I think of the space required and the concept/conceit contemporaneously if not as simply the same thing. It’s a subject I would love to expand upon here, actually, though I don’t have the time just now. Collaborative post, Jeff? A “conversation”?

  3. I’m an old crone (72)
    so not all that much time left
    no matter how you cut it, though
    and no they don;t take months to read
    I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow 13 times
    The Recognitions 3
    recently finished Peter Nadas’ Parallel Stories
    in 5 days
    John Cowper Powys
    the Russians
    and in my waiting alluring to be read pile
    Murakami’s latest
    Samuel Delany’s latest
    volumes 4 and forward Proust

    occasionally I read a short book
    500 pages or fewer
    and I enjoy amny of them
    (I do’;t, however, read many short stories)

    I love the opportunit to really settle into
    a book
    and thick books give me that opportunity

    people who don’t like BIG books
    can always not read them
    so why all the frequent complaints???????????????

    as for me
    “Keep ’em coming!”

    1. My complaints are, I think, minor and infrequent (my first time here, at least), Suzanne. One reader won’t tip the scales either way, right? “People who don’t like BIG books can always not read them” is exactly right, though I forget over and over and over. Yet another failing of mine.

      I am glad to hear you say what you have to say though, because I think — I think — that it points to the appeal of such books, or rather, that their appeal is to certain readers and not others. Because above you write that you “occasionally” read shorter books, and even less often, short stories. I wonder (I wondered, above) what it is that makes us different readers? I suspect, Suzanne, that there is a BIG book in you though of course I can’t know.

      1. well Gabriel
        I might have a Big Book in me
        but in practice I’m a poet!!!!!
        of course
        I have several ideas for epic
        (in the big sense)poems
        which nag at me to get written
        now and again

        perhaps it’s a matter of early conditioning
        when I was 9 I discovered the complete works of Dickens
        at the local college library
        and I read them all one after another
        that year

        I find the uiniverse to be
        a wondrous tapestry of interconnecting threads
        and you just can’t have a say about that
        in short

        as to the idea that readers of big books
        do it as a form of egotism:
        that may be true for some poor impoverished folks

        I have a strong sense of self
        but I do not view my self as the Goddess’ gift
        to wo/mankind
        some of us
        many of us non-egotisticals
        at the fictional woods forum
        love the Thickies
        and it has verylittle
        if anything
        to do with showing h ow smart we are!

        1. I read your line “many of us non-egotisticals at the fictional woods forum love the Thickies” as “many of us non-egotisticals at the fictional woods forum love the Thickets,” and thought, yes, Suzanne, you are a poet.

          I think I read short books for the same reason you say you read long ones; is that weird? That “wondrous tapestry of interconnecting threads” — I want to read those threads. I can weave. But your warp and woof and mine seem to create different things.

  4. I think a big part of the reason we read big books is ego: it’s “look, I can lift the biggest weight in the gym.” I took a course in Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in college, and on the first day , the teacher said, “I know it’s six thousand pages, but then you’ll spend the rest of your life being able to say you’ve read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov, and most of your friends won’t. I loved that class. Maybe it’s not so much ego as a test of yourself—like long-distance hiking.

    I picked up a copy of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire one very slow summer and got a sixth of the way through it, before my life rebooted. One day, I will finish that thing—I swear. And I guarantee I’ll be smug about it.

    1. Ed: I read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I think a couple of years out of college, and I’m not sure now why. Further evidence of just how perverse I can be; name a big classic and I’ve probably read it, it seems. Did a switch flip at some point in time? Is it temperamental? Is it because I stopped taking Ritalin? We may never know. I’m not smug about it — I’m absolutely bewildered by that person.

  5. I remember having to read Conrad in high school, the teacher passed out our copies of Heart of Darkness and I weighed it in my hand thinking “this can’t possibly be any good – it’s barely heavier than The Cay and I read that in fifth grade.”

    By having a misplaced sense of value as it relates to heft, however, I read a lot of the Bigs when I had time to read the Bigs and I’m glad I did.

    One of my theories about the lack of broad traction for the short story is that it forces an evaluative response on the reader every 2-25 pages (Was that good? Was it worth my time?), and while fellow writers and editors are comfortable making those decisions repeatedly as they read, people reading purely for leisure/entertainment prefer to be faced with that evaluative decision less often and only after completing a more comfortable breadth of pages.

    Authorial “arrogance” probably doesn’t apply to the same degree when considering much oIder works, at a certain time providing more to read was providing a material value, but now I look at The Instructions in my stack and think “Seriously, Levin, do you really have the gall to suggest this is better than the 4-5 books I could read in the same time-frame?”

    I’m glad he has the gall. There’s room for that, you can’t have a party that’s all considerate, self-effacing types. That being said, these days the only way I can tackle the long novel is to cheat on it with equal brazenness. I treated From Here To Eternity like a serial and read another dozen books while gradually pushing my way through Jones; perhaps not the ideal way to consume a book, but better than being hostile to the work for keeping me from other options in the stack.

    Glad you posted this before I could suggest we book-club The Tunnel…

    1. Au contraire, Nathan! Book-clubbing The Tunnel might be the only way to get me to read it. And I want very much to read it.

      As for your historical comments, you’re right, of course. Though I think that we have to be careful; Victorian era length comes (sometimes) from serialization, the very opposite of arrogance. You read a bit one day, you go on with your life, you come back the next and you’re reminded of what went before. And there are other mnemonics at work (think of Dickens’s grotesques), too. Big books now don’t do that. It’s considered patronizing. And when you’ve got the whole thing in front of you, the boxed set as it were, it is patronizing. But the author places certain expectations on her/his readers as a result. I’m not saying it’s wrong, I’m just saying it’s so. Maybe that’s less interesting.

      [Also: From Here to Eternity yet another big book I’ve read. Maybe I do love big books; I certainly seem to have at one time, because I’ve read a great many of them. I sell myself short and pass the savings on to you!]

    2. An interesting point you raise about the “forced evaluative response,” though couldn’t one argue that the short story gets in and out before anxieties about whether one’s time is being spent in a worthwhile fashion really flare up? It’s with a novel when I start doubting the whole endeavor and the commitment it is demanding.

      1. The discomfort of time/money being wasted isn’t necessarily bound by proportions. Unbagging your groceries and finding the avocado smashed under the canned goods can be just as aggravating as a parking ticket, even though the ticket might be 100X higher.

        Novel readers (who are not themselves writers) have a lifetime to become fluent in the form and develop their own gut instinct for where pushing on might expose them to the dissonant feeling of wasted effort (that standard 40-70 page range). Crossing that threshold is itself an unspoken evaluation, confirmation that on an instinctual level the book is “good enough” and worth their time. From that point reading can be carried out in leisure mode rather than judgement mode. Being comfortable in judgement mode, I’m happy making evaluations a dozen or more times in a 200 page short story collection – for other readers, it’s that proverbial mixed-bag where the potential for inedible avocados keeps them on edge. William Trevor doesn’t have a cross-over appeal just in terms of the clarity or maturity of his prose – he also offers a very comfortable reliability from one story to the next.

  6. Hey, your teenage obsession with big books lead you to better places than mine. I just read the Wheel of Time and its ilk.

    (Although for me it was less a quest for thrift and accomplishment and more a fear of endings and having nothing more of this particular story to read.)

    1. “A fear of endings and having nothing more of this particular story to read” is something I can remember feeling acutely, Rob. I wonder where that has gone? As for “better places,” well, look to your life; let’s just say our respective reading habits have lead us to where we are and leave it at that. Literary quality always seems like a questionable commodity to me, an elastic product.

  7. Behind my towering “to read” stack is a rear pillar with Underworld, 2666, Wings of The Dove, The Instructions, and The Tunnel. Underworld is on top largely because I suspect it will best lend itself to my “cheating” model. I had to so fully inhabit Omensetter’s Luck that I doubt I’ll be able to two-time Gass.

    We’ll have to drop everything one of these days and declare it Tunnel-month.

    1. You name the month, Nathan. Just, you know, name one far off, preferably one where I’m on vacation on a tropical isle.

      Underworld, by the way, another BIG ONE that I read with great pleasure. I have The Instructions, in hardcover, and, I have to say, the thing looks like a joke. I don’t even know how to handle it, much less begin to read it. Why do I buy these big books, Nathan? They are the literary equivalent of a hairshirt for me.

      1. I wandered into a Borders with a “40% off any one item” coupon and walked out with a hardcover copy of The Instructions. I feel like I got my money’s worth, if only for its value in home defense. The thing really is a brick.

  8. Late to the party, I’ll mostly offer my compliments on the wit, frankness, & discernment on display here, Gabriel — as well as raise another arr-woo-ooo, echoing long into the night, on behalf of the brilliant JR.

  9. This was great reading for me, Gabe. I wrote up a presentation on “the BIG book” for a forms of contemporary fiction class five years back, complete with bibliography from Don Quixote to Against the Day. I left out a bunch, I realize, considering non-fiction and my own blind-spots (The Brothers Karamazov and 2666 were omitted), plus the ones I could add if I went further back to Boccaccio and the Arabian Nights as well as forward to The Instructions and The Pale King. My final conclusion for the presentation was that what made a big book was its length. That’s it. More words. 500 pages instead of 250, essentially. Arguments can, have, and will be made about crafted economy versus staggering ambition et al, but I think ultimately every reader (and writer!) has to make choices. No one of us can read everything. No one of us can read everything good! No one of us can read everything good published in a single decade!! So, you know, criteria. Priorities. I guess we argue about them because we don’t want our own choices to feel arbitrary? I wrote that presentation on “the BIG book” because I thought I was enamored with the big book, but going down the list I have read so precious few of them: Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Cancer Ward, The Lord of the Rings, Atlas Shrugged, It and The Stand (the uncut version and the original both!), and that’s about it. I’ve read Don Quixote and Great Expectations, but abridged. I don’t see anthologies and collections as really counting. I’m guessing now that if I were to have read as many as you I would want to run away as well. I have a goodreads list of to-read that’s at 200 books right now, and a few are in the giant page count category: Infinite Jest, Tom Jones, The Recognitions, Parade’s End, V, etc. But who knows when I’ll have time for them? It seems that in the last three years especially, if a novel is more than 275 pages, it takes me forever to finish it. I started The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich over ten years ago, and I’m just now only halfway through! So, yeah, it’s a problem and it’s getting worse. It is better to read one 800 page book or three 250 page books and one long story? I knew what the answer was at one time–I knew it!–but I’m not so sure anymore.

    1. I had forgotten that The Stand came advertised as some sort of author’s edit! I wonder if there was the same kind of clamor that’s attending this paperback edition of The Pale King? That’s maybe a separate issue, but I will say that I’ve been seduced by the so-called complete, too, the awful “definitive” — I had, at one point, three different editions of The Castle because each threatened “new” or different additional material, but in the end, I only ever really read the version that Brod and Mann brought out originally. I mean, I flipped back and forth between the deleted sections in a second or third read, or when I bought the different edition I might check out what was new about it, but whenever I’ve reread it, I’ve reread just that core.

      But then it sounds like these issues are related, “500 pages instead of 250.” Most every 250 page book, of course, hides a 500 page book, but not necessarily one we’d want to read. The same holds true for the 500 page book — perhaps what it hides is even larger, perhaps 1200 pages. Don’t these editors add to the edition for just the reason that Rob adduced above? For the fear of ending and “having nothing more of this particular story to read”?

  10. I had a similar impulse to tackle the big books as a teenager but maybe not an equivalent impulse to devote the proper amount of time to them–it troubles me how foggy my memory of The Brothers K is. I put down J R at around page 300 convinced that my giving up meant I was maturing as a reader, though I do hope to go back to it–I admitted to myself that I had been speeding through some pages in order to reach some vague checkpoints further on. Real maturity would’ve probably meant slowing myself down and holding to that pace, but, baby steps–

    1. Right, Greg. That’s my fear. And beyond the fear of not devoting the requisite time and attention to it, that of not being able to devote that kind of time and attention to it. To anything, really, short of my family. With J R there are only vague checkpoints, passages — sometimes only sentences — of transition from one scene to another. You can go days without finding a good place to close the book and take a break — it’s what the book is meant to do, I find no fault with it, but bringing a stout heart or a stubborn one is highly recommended.

  11. Gabe,

    Among the many things I dig about this post is that you are such an atypical dissenter from the allure of the big book. Like, you’ve read a damned lot of them, given them a fair shake, in many cases four or more shakes. You’ve read more of them than I have, and I’m a proponent of the big book; perhaps if I’d read more of them I’d like them less. You’ve hefted your body weight in pages, you’ve made mantels groan, you’ve built up calluses ridged with papercuts and earned your way to an informed opinion. Still…. part of the initial appeal might be the sheer size and their ostentation, like the way my daughter’s favorite planets for a long time were Jupiter and Saturn, the show-offs, whereas Mercury gets little to no credit, even though its day is longer than its year, which is pretty cool–i.e. Mercury is a wonderfully quirky short novel of a planet. I do get that sense of the call of everything else that can hound you when you are in the midst of a giant book, but maybe the problem is book monogamy, and maybe the answer is as simple as always having one big one going (which could take a week, a month, a year), and reading a bunch of shorter ones at the same time. And as far as the serialized tradition of the Victorian era, I wonder if Mark Danielewski has the right idea with his latest, The Familiar, whose parts are going to be serialized, twenty-seven of them as I understand it. Anyway, Gabe, thanks for a provocative post that’s got me pondering why exactly I’m drawn to places like India and Alaska, which seem to have only scale in common, as well as these thumpers of books. I think maybe because they’re the only marathons I’ll ever run…

    1. I’ll even admit: I do select, in certain situations, based on size. When I go off on vacation, I like to bring along something longer (though lighter in other ways), usually an Eco novel in paperback, which I didn’t add to any of my lists above because they’re usually more like 400-500 pages than 700-1000. That’s comfortable for me somewhere on a beach, but I don’t normally partake of Eco when I’m in my study at home. It’s because I don’t want to walk around an airport with a library on my back — one book that will last the whole trip, with maybe a slim one brought along as backup (and that I inevitably read first, my bias coming out yet again) — but that’s less a matter of beginnings and endings than one of the right tool for the job, you know? Something somewhat rewarding that one doesn’t have to pay a great deal of attention to, like “good” TV.

      In some weird way, I think Danielewski has himself a patron, in the old sense, in Pantheon. I’m reading the news the same way, 27 parts, and, I think, split over a number of years (I think I remember he said something like 4 parts a year, so at least six years). Who knows how that will influence the work? I have to believe that it will affect the work. I’m just not sure what to make of it all. But Danielewski? He’ll make millions.

  12. Gabe, others — here’s a more substantive response than my earlier round of applause, lighthearted if nonetheless sincere.

    What we pluck off the shelf as a “big book” trails behind it a long root, & weighty, namely that of the epic. Epic lit is all about containing multitudes; it gives form to the cherished notion that the human mind can make sense of a world, & by extension, that the world’s made in our image. I doubt the artist will ever lose that ambition, a genetic inheritance from the shaman.

    So we keep getting these culture-catchers: GILGAMESH, the Pentateuch, THE ODYSSEY. Dante’s DIVINE COMEDY would be one of the briefest, most rigorous, most formally adroit varieties of the All-Story, & DON QUIXOTE one of the least formal, a shaggy-dog affair.

    Naturally, 20th-C. American authors too wanted to try to get their whole honkin’ new universe into one bag, & we got earnest attempts like THE MANHATTAN TRILOGY by Dos Passos. But after mid-century the impulse turns on itself, shot through with irony & adorned with masks. Y’know, postmodern. The watershed case here is Barth’s SOT-WEED FACTOR, which prizes old-fashioned narrative drive even while making fun of it, & celebrates American beginnings even while dramatizing how they were based in enslavement & piracy. Gaddis’s big novels of course have many of the same qualities — & JR may be a greater accomplishment, overall, than any other book in this paragraph — but when Pynchon sits down to GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, or Wallace to INFINITE JEST, they’ve got SOT-WEED in mind, as they set up their own epic containers; they intend to yoke the whole American techno-capitalist enterprise into a single entity, even as they rip to shreds the “truths” of that culture &, at the same time, undo their own novelistic structures.

    Any of that ring a bell, Gabriel? Or am I beside the point?

    1. The Sot-Weed Factor is deserving of so many responses, isn’t it, John? Such a fun book. And that’s just it, isn’t it? Fun. J R, too, is fun (though occasionally way too much, by design). It’s not as though I don’t finish what I’ve started — as a reader, I’m not a quitter — but that, too, can be an impediment. I know I’m going to finish, no matter what, so it’s better just not to start. Or so my thinking seems to sometimes go.

      As for that all-embracing impulse, it isn’t mine, but that says nothing. I’d like to say it’s a personality-type, a tic of the writer, but then, well, Wallace (two novels (one huge), a third unfinished, and plenty of fine short prose). And others, so many others. DeLillo would seem an interesting study for further examination, given that he has made a habit of both gargantuan and svelte narratives.

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