A few posts back I wrote about the virtues of short stories. Now I‚Äôd like to go in the opposite direction and write a little about big books I have loved.
If short stories are nice because I know I‚Äôm going to get the whole narrative arc within the next 30 minutes, a big book is pleasant because I know I‚Äôm going to be carrying it around with me for some time. Near the beginning of Invitation to a Beheading, Nabokov steps out of his narrative momentarily to speak to the reader, commenting on the satisfying feel of the unread pages that the reader holds in her right hand (and Beheading is only about 200 pages long!).
The satisfaction that Nabokov speaks of is one of the best things about big books. After the first hundred pages or so I can usually tell if the next 600 pages will be worth my time. If I decide they are, there is always a wonderful feeling of the enormity that lies stretched out before me. It is a welling up, an exuberance borne of the book‚Äôs immense size, the expectation that this lovely writing, this intriguing story, these fantastic characters, will never end. Both in the literal and figurative sense, I feel as though I can read this book forever.
And sometimes it seems as though I do. Once I‚Äôve gotten past the book‚Äôs beginning — the character introductions, the scene-setting, the exposition — I settle down into the middle part, which gives a sense of neither here nor there. There is a mass of pages before me, there is a mass of pages behind me, and the sizes of the two don‚Äôt seem to change much. I plug away, 20 pages here, 50 pages there, and though much may happen the illusion that I am not moving, the certainty of the book‚Äôs infinity, remains.
This middle region is like a tranquil locale that inspires me to lose sight of ever leaving. I have become sufficiently immersed within the book that I barely notice my progress, or lack thereof. Because the sensation of progress has been suspended, the book inspires me to be luxurious with my time. I read slowly, paying close attention, giving my imagination more leeway then usual to run free and interpret. When I read, I notice the book more and everything else less.
When the end comes it is bittersweet. I‚Äôm excited to be moving on to a new book, and with so many books to read I‚Äôm glad that I can call another read. But I still remember something of my first blush with the book, the heady days when I really did think it would go on forever. That time is past, and even though I can read the book again, it will not be quite the same. No, this magnificent book really is over, and for that I am the least bit sad.
Fortunately there are lots and lots of big books out there, so the bittersweet goodbye can be met with a ravishing new hello. Here’s a list of big books that I believe are essential. (in no particular order, and restricted to books I have read.)
1. The Octopus by Frank Norris
2. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
3. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
4. Underworld by Don DeLillo
5. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
6. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
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