Friday, May 20, 2011

Big Books

If you have the time (joke), read this essay from The Millions (great site) about the so-called Stockholm syndrome of reading fat books. I'm not sure I agree with all of this, but there are some points that I do back. Mainly: life’s too short to waste time reading a book you are not enjoying (enjoyment being difficult to define; one can enjoy a challenging book as much as an empty-headed TV show or tweeting with their "friends"). Sure, school will often force you to read those big, intimidating classics and your friends and the New York Times may try to convince you that Jonathan Franzen is too important to ignore, but aside from those moments you ought to read because you enjoy the process. There are books we feel compelled to read out of duty or curiosity, but I don’t think it a bad thing to abandon a book if one is not truly invested. In short (joke again): books require effort—not a bad thing—but, to use this author’s example, they ought to reward more than they punish. Otherwise I worry that slogging through a big book just to be able to say you did as much is bullshit posturing. Why put yourself through that for some pretentious bragging rights?

That being said, I have not finished The Man Without Qualities or In Search of Lost Time, though I very much liked what I read of both. I have given up on Ulysses three times now. Last Bloomsday, I vowed to read a chapter a month until it was finished, and made it further than ever (but still chucked it). Joyce and I will never be buddies, it seems. Oh well—I’ll content myself with Faulkner.

But that’s just it—there are plenty of “important” writers and books to be discovered, some long, some short. It's about finding the ones that truly matter to you. Content matters more than length to me, and while I admit to feeling thrilled that I made it through 2666 (which is a great book) in no time at all, I will also say that Distant Star is a better book in many ways. And yeah, Moby-Dick is great and all, but Bartleby is equally as important to me. And Thomas Bernhard may be the greatest 20th century European writer, and he, as this article states, never wrote a long book.

Look, challenge yourself. It’s good for you. Do your mental gymnastics and put those big books before you. Give ‘em a try, but love the process and don’t stick with them for the sake of saying, “I read Pynchon” when Pynchon is—sorry folks—a bore.