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The Challenge of Long Novels

I’m reading Neal Stephenson’s Fall: Or Dodge in Hell.  Weighing in at 883 pages, it’s a heavyweight tome.  Like most of you, I love getting lost in a book.  With life’s hectic daily gauntlet, I often awake longing for the hour before I turn back in: my uninterrupted reading hour.  I’m an eclectic reader.  I believe we are made up of the books we read.  Literary Frankensteins, all.  Still, I’ve come to dread the long book.

As a kid I got hooked on reading with 128-page pulp fiction serials.  These short, quickly read novels gave you a sense of accomplishment.  Perhaps strange for someone who makes a living as an editor, I’m a slow reader.  I like to take my time.  Savor the book.  Even the pulp fiction of my childhood didn’t taste like empty calories.  Those stories took me places I couldn’t afford to go otherwise.  I could get through a dozen in a summer, easy.  Then I adulted.  I came to face the long novel.

My first really long book was Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  I took it on an international flight on my way to spending six weeks in Israel, where I would have reading time every day.  Months later, after the return flight, I was still hanging with Prince Nikolai and Count Pyotr.  Finally, after much flipping back to the character chart to remind me of someone last mentioned a hundred pages earlier, I finished.  I was embarrassed about a year later when a friend mentioned a major character from the novel I couldn’t even remember.  Still, grown up readers have to learn to eat grown up fare.

Every year I anticipate two reading challenges: Goodreads and the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s.  The former is quantitative—completely numbers based, while the latter involves categories that often shake me from my comfort zone.  One year said Mrs. Darcy listed a category of a book over 500 pages.  I’d been meaning to read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic The Brothers Karamazov again.  I’d read it in college and recalled the famous Grand Inquisitor scene.  I pulled it down and began going through the dense, textured Russian prose.  I finished the Grand Inquisitor chapter and realized I still had another  457 pages to go.  I should be up to such a challenge, but I didn’t feel like going on.  What was wrong with me?  By the end of the year I’d chosen a more accessible long novel and picked up Karamazov again a later year when Mrs. Darcy’s categories included a book you had previously put down unfinished.

Long novels are a challenge in their own right when my Goodreads goal is set over 52.  More than a book a week.  Lengthy tomes can take months, and I feel that reading kids’ books to catch up is cheating.  The long book requires quite a bit from its readers.  You have to set aside the time for reaching that elusive book-a-week-plus goal.  If you require frequent changes of scenery, genre, style, or author you’ll need to hone your delayed gratification skills.  You monogamously stay with an author for long, intense weeks.

Then there’s the practicality of traveling with books.  Always preferring paper to plastic, I had to leave Fall behind on a more recent plane trip.  It would’ve been the only book that could’ve fit in my carry-on.  I get bored on long flights and like to have options.  I miss my pulp fiction.

The internet perhaps unfortunately caters to the short attention spans of those of us raised on network television.  Instant stimulation from a new quarter is just a click away.  It is a poor training ground for the long novel.  You feel like you should do some push-ups just to get ready to lift it.  Or at least do some stretches.  I’ve been spending my pre-sleep hours with Stephenson since there were still leaves on the trees.  I’m enjoying the story, but I can’t help wondering what I’m missing between other covers.