Sunday, September 25, 2011

On the Joys of Reading Long Books

There was a time in my life when I found books of a certain size intimidating. Maybe it goes back to my attempt, at the age of twelve, to absorb my father's copy of War and Peace when the only adult literature I had read until then was science fiction. I remember getting to the end of chapter one and feeling like I'd just eaten way too much chocolate cake. I knew it was good stuff, on a level above anything I'd seen, but I also knew I wasn't ready for it.

By the time I reached high school I was able to plow my way through not only Tolstoy but Dostoyevsky, and not only Russians but Americans like Steinbeck and Faulkner -- even Absolom, Absolom with its pages-long sentences. In my college years Hermann Hesse came into vogue, so I consumed most of his works including the monumental Magister Ludi (or The Glass Bead Game) which is supplemented at the end by a sort of appendix of poetry and three short stories  purported to have been written by its main character, a wonderful example of a book that contains other books. I also developed my fondness for philosophical works by digesting William James' Varieties of Religious Experience and Aldous Huxley's The Perrenial Philosophy. Both of those are heavy wading, but they made an interesting pair since they shared the idea that all the world's religions have much in common, an idea that appealed to me as a Unitarian who was destined to become a Quaker.

Then, as happens to many of us, I became so caught up in the world and the need to make a living that I found less time for reading. I returned to my first love of science fiction for recreation, and gravitated toward short stories that were quicker to consume. I lost my taste for big thick books that revealed from their sheer bulk the amount of time and attention that would have to be give to them. It was so much easier to take two hours to absorb a movie or a magazine.

I suppose it has just been reaching a later stage of my life that has drawn me back to those substantial works I had avoided for so long. But the pleasure of discovery -- or rediscovery -- has been well worth the wait. Armed only with the willingness, I launched into such projects as reading the twenty volumes of Patrick O'Brian's seafaring novels, and Neal Stephenson's trilogy of 700-pagers set in the Baroque period. I also got an ebook reader and have been using it to catch up on many of the classics that I had somehow managed to overlook, things like Moby Dick, The Magic Mountain, and the other wonderful novels of Joseph Conrad which are not called Heart of Darkness.

Having acquired the taste, it is now one of the most satisfying feelings I can imagine to sit down and crack the covers on something that measures a couple of inches in thickness. I'm finally reading Shadow Country, Peter Matthieson's final version (900 pp.) of his legend about Mr. Watson, the backwoods killer who was shot down by his neighbors in the Florida Everglades.

And, just to keep things interesting, I've also started in on the three volumes of Shelby Foote's definitive account of the Civil War. Something wonderful happens when you realize the author will take as much time and space as it takes to give you the full picture. Thus we begin with two capsule biographies of Lincoln and Davis, the rival Presidents, and proceed at leisure up to the first conflict at Harper's Ferry.

The reader can sit back with a sigh, confident in the hundreds of pages remaining to unfold the whole tale, and comforted by the other two volumes still waiting on the shelf. When you're having this good a time, the best news you can hear are the words, "To be continued ..."