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 Decameron, Tristram 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.