A Good Long Read

Dec 23, 2013

At this dark, cold time of year, when the Holidays seem to promise some extra leisure time, and the Holiday specials on television make it too painful to watch television, it’s comforting to think that we still have the old-fashioned option of sinking into an armchair by the fire and enjoying a good long read. That phrase "A good long read" was often spoken with nostalgia by my busy parents. It was something they dreamed about, but rarely achieved except around Christmastime and on summer vacations.

The Victorians had servants to do the housework, and so had a lot of time on their hands. They loved long books and authors were happy to provide them, not least because many were paid by the word or the page. Dickens, Thackeray, Hardy and the rest routinely published novels of eight or nine hundred pages or more, to say nothing of Monsieur Proust with his mind-numbing three thousand pages. In the modern age, with so many distractions and our much shorter attention spans, these huge volumes are a challenge. I just finished Middlemarch by George Eliot (904 pages) and and The Way we live Now by Anthony Trollope (844 pages) and I feel as though I ran two marathons, uphill all the way. They are both fine books, but the stories evolve at such a stately pace that it’s hard to remember the complicated plots and all the characters when the reading has to be spread out over a period of weeks.

There have been some fine twentieth-century practitioners of the long, long novel – Tom Wolfe for example, and David Foster Wallace. You find them abandoned in hotel lounges or discarded in yard sales and charity shops. You can see how someone might think such a book would be good for the long winter evenings. But how long could any evening be?

Everyone loves a good story, but it needs to come to an end before we lose interest or lose the plot. But sometimes one good story begets another, and another, and another, until we have that most satisfying of all fictional experiences known as a series. This form of the writer’s art is still alive and well.  We have a fine backlog of multi-volume tales from writers as various as Anthony Powell, P.G. Wodehouse, John Updike,  and Georges Simenon, to say nothing of the Harry Potter series that surprised everyone by getting millions of children addicted to reading something even longer than a hundred and forty characters. A series is addictive without being overwhelming. It allows us to enter a whole world of strangers, who who don’t remain strangers for long, and can be encountered again and again for a lifetime, with new discoveries to be made at every reading.

Once we have found a series of books we love it’s like discovering a second life. The characters and settings become as real as those in our own lives (perhaps more so), and they become a part of our lives.  So now that winter and The Holidays are upon I’m giving myself the gift of a good long read – the historical novels of Patrick O’Brian, for the fourth time If nothing disturbs my concentration I may just get through all seventeen novels by the first day of spring.

Copyright: David Bouchier