Saturday, October 9, 2021

In Defense of Big Fat Books


Americans have always liked our books big and largely unread. The Holy Bible, once and still the subject of serious study in many American homes, had a second life as heirloom, birth-record, and for generations held pride of place as parlor furnishing in the weighty incarnation of the family Bible; notes, under-linings, tabs, and markers being kept to the more portable Testaments suitable for carrying to Sunday school. Likewise our history when it came to be written, if still somewhat slight in the full record of human struggle and achievement, was thought to require the full dignity of such massy works as Irving's five volume life of George Washington and the six of Sandburg's dithyramb on Lincoln. I've met a few who've read the whole of the latter, but none who've ever managed the first.

Perhaps no enterprise in the history of our literature spent ink and wasted paper like the waging of The Great American Novel. Turns out? The contest was won in 1851 with Melville's Moby Dick, but nobody knew that for almost one hundred years. And so generations of big boys kept making big books from Dreiser to Wolfe to Faulkner to Steinbeck, Pynchon to Gaddis to DeLillo to Foster Wallace... and on it goes. You want to play with the big boys, it seems you need a big book. Nothing wrong with that in principle I suppose, though it would seem some folks mistook tonnage for Tolstoy, windy for weighty, and big for substantial. Ayn Rand at length is still, alas, Ayn Rand. Big isn't bad, but it ain't always good.

Genre writers have become perhaps the worst offenders in this. Dear as it is to his many fans, Stephen King's The Stand is basically a rather bland Stephen King novel wrapped in at least three more Stephen King novels, Taco Bell style. Science Fiction, and supremely Fantasy fiction now comes in cases, like law books, or milk jugs. It used to take a trilogy to build a universe. Now that's called "a good start." 

And when American publishers have the chance to reprint the collected anyone or anything, unlike our European cousins who like slim, uniform volumes, we will have it all in one ungainly lump, thank you. Jane Austen wrote novels of nearly perfect proportion to her subjects. In America we want one fat, pink, faux leather Jane. Complete is better than collected which is better than selected which is much to be preferred to any intention the writer may have had. Poets? Letters? Art? Why not one big, much annotated, not-to be-lifted-let-alone-read book? Norton anthologies, am I right? For that matter, Norton Critical editions of even the slimmest works. The Holy Torah has less accumulated commentary.

All that said, I love a big fat book. Why? Well, I'm glad you asked -- and yes, someone actually did ask me today, honest.

Here's the funny thing. A whole generation read one of the longest books in the English language. The canonical Harry Potter story collectively runs to 4,224 pages. The complete A Remembrance of Things Past clocks just shy of that at 4,215. I only read bits of the first Potter book, just to see what all the fuss was about. Exciting, but not for me. I was too old to be part of that phenomenon. Had I been nine when that first one came out... you bet. I have read Proust's novel, and parts of it twice. I feel safe in saying that a large part of the pleasure in either book is in the span of the work. All those pages? That's the point. 

When I was kid in the seventies there was a brand new thing on television called the "mini series." These were invariable adapted from long, popular novels by the likes of Taylor Caldwell, Irwin Shaw, James Michener, James Clavell, and most famously, Alex Haley. This was "event viewing" of the first order. Nowadays there are "binge-worthy" series on various platforms and most of these seem to come not so much from books as from police files, but even now the better ones often started out as novels like The Queen's Gambit and American Rust. The whole business of binging requires a pretty substantial commitment of time, if admittedly in a far more passive way than a big book, but the commitment is there nonetheless. During the worst of the pandemic, like everybody else who could afford to do so, I watched a lot of these things and enjoyed them -- though not a few might have benefited from a better acquaintance with good books, or at least better ones -- says snobby ol' print man. Sniff. 

The point being that lots of people are still willing to commit a lot of time to sustained narratives, even if not everyone thinks of this as anything at all like reading a big book. 

I do see how books, good books, big fat books both classic and contemporary, can be a complicated undertaking for most readers. We may have lost, most of us, the habit of reading in a sustained way one book across many, many days, weeks, or months. It does require a certain discipline to read in this way, however enjoyable the experience. The world is full of distraction. My house is full of books. The light must be right. Most of us require quiet, etc. And look! A cat is playing the harmonica on my phone! I would argue that reading can be a place of safety from distraction, and never more so than when we are reading a very long book. The best thing about Combray is going back there, yes?

Consider also the weight of our educational experience good or bad. We all remember reading as an assignment and often a chore. The great benefit of a classroom can and ought to be having someone to guide our reading. Certainly anyone who has experienced secondary education will remember that not every guide was good at this. Even when they were good at it, time was not always the friend of instruction. Please have Pamela read by this Tuesday. And then there were those awful tests. Many a great book has foundered in the shallows of exams. If all our great love affairs ended in a grueling examination and a pass or fail grade, it would be perfectly understandable if we learned to prefer the one night stand; short stories to Victorian novels, the pithy memoir to Boswell's Life of Johnson. Too often this is all we remember of  Lit classes: the plot, the theme, the test and the grind. 

We may forget if we ever knew, but the satisfaction of a big book is in the freedom it offers both its author and his or her readers. The end is not always in sight. The trip is long. Plenty to see. The subject is seldom a single thing. "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." That is perhaps the most famous opening line in literature, and it is true so far as it goes. And how far is that? Well, it took Tolstoy 864 pages to tell Anna Karenina. I don't think anyone who's read the book thinks that that famous line either sums up the novel or even states Tolstoy's intentions. That sentence is the point from which we -- the writer and his reader -- set out. He isn't trying to prove his assertion, or even support an argument, he's starting a conversation, and we have all the time in the world. Not only is it an interesting invitation, and an excellent story, what makes the journey worthwhile ultimately is that Tolstoy is excellent company -- or he was at least before he started praying all day, bless 'im. 

Some very modest people have written some very interesting books.  There's every reason to read Robert Walser, or Fleur Jaeggy, but there's probably an excellent reason to think that the books they've written are exactly the size they should be. I assume Walser was a very nice man. I'd bet Fleur is a perfectly charming person. I would not however be terribly confident inviting either to a party. Meanwhile, I can't think of one book of more than say six hundred pages worth reading that was ever written by a dull person. I would rather have dinner with Balzac, or drinks with Dickens, pass an evening at Johnson's club, or spend the weekend at Montaigne's. None of those dead gentlemen had an untroubled soul and lord knows Dickens for example was a shit to his wife, but just think of the conversation, the talk, the going on! And so it is that I don't want all my books to be careful, exquisite, tightly made. It takes almost a kind of courage to sit down next to such a big man as Dumas, or to brave the company of Alfred Doblin or Jaroslav Hasek, all of them men of imperfect manners, large appetites, roaring, funny -- at least on the page -- and yes, profound.

And such crowds they bring with them! Big books can accommodate many characters, most of whom would never fit into a more compact vehicle. The multiplicity of the human experience is ultimately the premise of most big books. Think of that mob of Duchesses in the salons of Proust, the throng on the streets of Dickens' London and Hugo's Paris. Even Boswell's Doctor Johnson is seldom alone. The delight for the reader in such a multitude is that we needn't bring a thing to the party. Our host has arranged everything. We will meet all the right people. We will be seated by the best gossips, have the best view of the dance, stay safely in our carriage to watch the battle.

More. In a big fat book we are asked to observe whole societies, witness the sweep of history, plumb the depths and exhilarate in the triumphs of people about whom we have already been made to care. Even reading through Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, while it is not always easy to care very much about the sorry fate of this or that emperor, or the collapse of this or that once noble people, the writer, being so good a writer makes sure we see people in the burning churches, men and women in the moving hordes. The historian's purpose is to preserve and translate a vast expanse of history. The writer wants not just to instruct but to please us. And in the great novelists, however didactic they may intend to be the urge to show emotion, to move us, to make us laugh, to be human in the readers' company is unrestrained by history, much as most of them love it and use it to ground their stories in time.

Time is the impetus of every long book and its subject, and if it is worth reading time is the justification of the effort, the writer's and the readers'. What a rare thing it is in this hectic, over-stimulated, and anxiety-ridden period to be offered the luxury of time! We mustn't be put off by the breadth of the thing, by the distance to the horizon. We are constantly being told by fatuous sloganeers that the journey is the destination, that we must stop to smell the roses, etc. All we are actually being sold in such packaged candies is complacency and patience with our lowly lot in capitalism in a burning world. Time spent in a big book may be one of the better ways to really appreciate how humanity moves through time, how the individual may suit the times or not, may effect the times or be destroyed, may triumph or withdraw. Big fat books serve us more than one meal and help us to avoid the sticky sweet certainties of received wisdom, cliche, and control. Big books teach us how much we may have in common not only with their heroines but also with the villains. It is only in a big fat book that we learn the real value of so called minor characters. All great literature is thorough within its parameters. But a big fat book, a great novel of a thousand pages, a biography, history, an epic, while these forms may not be entirely of our time, they are still being written and still being read. Why? Because we still need stories bigger than the ones we know, bigger perhaps than our own, and we need to take the time to read them. It is time the readers reclaimed our time, no?

That in mind, I'm of a mind to start a new book club, Call it Brad's Big Fat Book Club. The idea being that a space is needed in which my friends and I and any strangers interested might read such books together in the time it takes. Circumstances necessitate that the space would be virtual for now and perhaps even when we again have other options as not everyone wants to take a bus in the evening if there isn't at least a burrito at the end of the trip (and by "not everyone" I of course mean me.) 

I have been in book clubs before and my experience has been at best mixed. I ran a few meeting myself and was not a great success. I am not a serious critic, a particularly close reader or student, and I am no kind of a teacher. I gab. I talk off point. I can be intolerant of the dismissive and the dim. I do not care generally what one's grandma always used to say on a given subject and I heartily dislike anyone whose only response to something I've said is, "Tell us what you really think, Brad." (Get out. And don't come back.) 

I've been in the company of a great book club host and discussion facilitator in the person of my dear friend and fellow bookseller Nick DiMartino. He was everything I was not and the man knows exactly how to ask a leading question. He never pontificated. He is genuinely, wildly curious. He is a dear. 

I can't guarantee that I can be anything like the amazing Mr. Dimartino. But I will try my best.

My only agenda is to read good books and big ones at that in the company of others. We might do it anyway by ourselves, but company can be nice, no?

Consider this an invitation.

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