Today, we are taking a break from our regularly scheduled food programming to discuss long reads. Not just #longreads – which you should absolutely follow – but books that make your arms ache.
Folks, it’s summer. Days are long. If you’re lucky, weekends are longer. Long vacations, car trips, flights, summer Fridays. Time stretches before us. There are blockbusters to watch and barbeques to host, but mostly time to sit on the porch or in the park. And how else to fill those lazy summer hours? With ridiculously long reads!
Now by summer read, I don’t mean beach read – Jen Doll’s recommendations for The Atlantic Wire are the way to go here – but a book (or two) that will carry you through the summer. Rather than picking up an airport novel you’ll forget as soon as you finish, the goal is a book that will last and shape your memory of the summer. So in 3 or 5 or 20 years, you can look back and say, oh, 2009? That was the time I finally read Moby-Dick. And forever that summer will be cast in a vaguely nautical and monomaniacal light.
When embarking on a very long read, go old or go home, I always say. The 19th century is my jam. Pre-internet there were simply fewer distractions to both the writer and the reader. Authors certainly worked to hold their audience’s attention, but with a leisurely pace more appropriate for those slow summer days. If you snoozed through Lit 101, now’s your chance to catch up: Dickens, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Hardy, Tolstoy. The big dogs of the Western canon can be a bit daunting, but the 19th century had more than its share of pulpy fast-paced plots. I recommend The Quaker City by George Lippard if you like your fiction to include murder, seduction, and general debauchery (and, really, who doesn’t?). Pyramid schemes, mysterious pasts, and gambling addictions? Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now.
In fact, finding a very long book that doesn’t include some sort of horrific crime is a challenge in itself. It takes a lot to fill a thousand pages and big books have big themes. War, peace, war and peace, patricide, death of at least one major character, loves won and lost, wealth, poverty, thievery, revenge, passion, sorrow. These are deep themes to explore and meditate on. When will you have the time for that, besides August? Big books can be messy. Struggling with the author and characters is work, but the fun kind and more memorable because you’ve fought for it.
For those of you who absolutely must read more modern books, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 will fascinate and devastate you. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen is both very long and very good. They’re a few years old now, but Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale are worlds worth diving into for a few weeks.
When you have finally exhausted the single volume novels, there are always series! Your favorite characters don’t just live for eight or nine hundred pages. They go on for thousands. The millions of us who read the Harry Potter books as they were published, grew old along with their protagonists. Harry, Ron and Hermione can be as vivid as people we’ve actually known. The intricate worlds developed over multiple volumes (see Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings for another example) are awesome to explore and awesomely escapist. (Escapism’s not a dirty word. It is summer, after all).
For total escapism, my last summer’s long book was actually five very long books from the George Martin’s Game of Thrones series. Which brings me to the road not taken: genre fiction. Aside from my brief sojourn in Westeros and the occasional Stephen King novel, I generally steer clear of detective novels, mysteries, westerns, science fiction and fantasy, but these latter three are often long and often series. If Trollope doesn’t enthrall you and 2666 seems too dark, genre fiction could be a good summer reading approach.
As for me? I’ve already started Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. It’s a literary masterpiece, and Hugo a master of writing whatever he felt at great length, expediency be damned. Why simply introduce a character when you can write an entire recap of the Battle of Waterloo alongside musings on French history, character, culture and heroism? I’ll be pondering this for the next several hundred pages and throughout the summer. Join me!