The Year of Long Books

December 27th, 2012

I don’t think I’ll declare 2012 a banner year in my particular life. Many things that I had intended to do with the year went undone, many of the goals I set for the year went unmet. But there were positive things in it, and a bit of a reversal of one of my long held opinions.

I read a lot of long books this year.

I have, in the past, used this space to extoll the virtues of shorter fiction. Friend will not be surprised to find I nodded along with Ian McEwan’s short essay on the virtues of the novella. There are a lot of long books out there, and it takes a lot of our precious time to read them. Why waste your time on them? Because sometimes, even I have to admit, they are worth it.

What amazes me is that I am backing off on my previous stance in a year when I read such frustrating long books. On the list of very long form fiction I read this year, you can find 1Q84 (which I found to be inferior to almost all of Murakami’s prior work, despite critics declaring it his magnum opus). You can also find the first five books of the Song of Ice and Fire (which has numerous length and time based detractors), the two published parts of the the Kingkiller Chronicle (book 2 is almost as long as the entire damn Lord of the Rings trilogy, and begins to drag), and Reamde (enjoyable if totally disposable Stephenson. I also toyed with the Baroque cycle, the Ramayana, Dream of the Red Chamber, and Gormengahst, without really starting in on them. You can also add a few more, because every year is the year I intend to read Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest, and Ulysses. I just never get around to those. And my friend Colin always loved Mason & Dixon, so I’ll probably give that a shot some day, despite disagreeing with him about Delillo’s Underworld.

So, why have I changed my mind? Middlemarch. I read it in parts over the whole year and it rekindled the idea that by attempting more in the long form, more could be achieved. I’d stumbled through Bleak House in 2011 and hadn’t hated it, but as with most Dickens had been unable to look past what I see as the flaws (for all his reputation for brilliant characters, most of them strike me as single note entities existing as a parody of the human condition). George Eliot’s characters felt real to me. By the end, though the setting is as limited as many other English country novels, I had remembered that by risking the attempt of the enormous, greater effect can be achieved. It was a refreshing feeling. It also got me to add Daniel Deronda to the list of larger novels I plan to attempt.

I also read a fair number of shorter books with had either no effect or struggled to survive the very conceit under which they were conceived. I’m looking at you Sugar Frosted Nut-Sack. It was the first year as a reader that I’ve abandoned books with any regularity. I almost always go back to books, no matter how long it takes. I maintain a list. I maintain too many lists. But it is unlikely that I will ever pick up The Thin Place or The Tragedy of Arthur again. Despite recommendations from people I trust, the voices of both these books left me very cold. That’s not to say that their authors failed, but I appear to have finally reached a point where I can say, “it’s not you, it’s both of us,” to authors.

So that leaves me with 10 books of 800+ pages on a list of 202 books that I still intend to read before I die. There will be others of course, but these are the ones that have been set aside to read for reasons other than a particular spine serendipitously falling into my hands. Perhaps I’ll get to all 10 in 2013 (highly unlikely). But at least I won’t be picking them up grudgingly.

Comments are closed.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.