Thursday, June 02, 2005

The charm of Big Books

My bed groaned loudly when I flung the 950-page Shantaram onto it; it’s already playing host to the equally thick Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Susannah Clarke) and Underworld (Don DeLillo). Well, too bad. There’s a very particular charm that Big Books have (I mean the ones that can actually be read, not the Finnegan’s Wake variety). This is a strange thing for me to say considering my frequent complaints that I only feel up to reading short stories nowadays; I hesitate to get started on something really mammoth because there’s always a good chance that before I finish it something else will suddenly come along for review, and I don’t like deserting a book midway.

But as I came to the end of Murakami’s epic The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and turned it over in my hands as per ritual, I thought again about how comforting it is to spend time in the company of a big, big book. A few years ago movie critic Roger Ebert, reviewing the first of the Lord of the Rings films, wrote of Tolkien’s novel: "Reading it, I remembered why I liked it in the first place. It was reassuring. You could tell by holding the book in your hands that there were many pages to go, many sights to see, many adventures to share..." These words might seem especially relevant to a fantasy/adventure novel but they apply equally well to most of the really fulfilling Big Books I’ve read.

The first big books in my life were Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. If I’m not mistaken, both have suffered a decline in critical appreciation over the years (though East of Eden was never ranked among Steinbeck’s three or four best novels in any case) but I still remember them fondly. (In an abstract sense that is, since most of the plot details have slipped out of my memory.) They came along at a time when I had just started aspiring towards "higher reading", having moved beyond the Hardy Boys stage, and it was good to feel like I was reading something worthwhile, something substantial. Undoubtedly the very size of the things contributed immensely to that impression at the time.

In his review Ebert also says "Lord of the Rings is not about a narrative arc or the growth of the characters, but about a long series of episodes in which the essential nature of the characters is demonstrated again and again (and again)." I don’t completely agree with that bit - character growth and a narrative arc do have a part to play in LOTR and I don’t see how these things can be completely absent from any successful book, whatever its genre. But it’s certainly true that many of the great Big Books are built on an episodic structure: Don Quixote, Moby Dick, Tom Jones and The Pickwick Papers come instantly to mind. Naturally, this has a lot to do with the fact that many of the early novels were first published in serialized form in magazines or journals. (It might also help explain why classics like Tom Jones are surprisingly easy to read even compared to some modern novels that are half the size.)

Can go on and on about my favourite Big Books but my attention has been diverted. I’ve been book-tagged by my libertarian buddy Yazad Jal and while I’m terrified at the prospect of naming just five books that mean a lot to me, I think I will get around to it soon. Separate post for that one.


  1. Fat books I remember having read: Lord Of The Rings, Norman Mailer's The Naked And The Dead. On Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell now.

  2. yep its reassuring to know.. that you were with each of the characters on their adventures and transformations and went through the huge book and now can recall your favourite bits as and when you want.. its somehow a sense of achievement.

  3. The fat book of all fact books in my reading is undoubtedly "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" And at an impresionable age at that.Was it ever that such an evil could have been perpetuated by a single man without the active cooperation of the man on the street in Germany? Somehow coercion or anti-semitism would not simply explain away the horrors of the Holocaust.There is something essentially beastly and destructive in the people.And that we find such ghastly parallels in the 21st century also is absolutely frightening.
    So what has this got to do with fat books? Ask William Shirer.

  4. There's immense satisfaction when you finish with a BIG book, but it's tough to get started - for some of the reasons you mentioned. Invariably, something interesting comes along. The only BIB book I've read is Middlemarch and I took 3 months to finish it! It's a book that's tough to read at one go, partly because as you've said above, authors wrote in episodic form and their stories appeared weeakly or fortnightly in magazines at that time. This prompted the authors to increase the numbers and sometimes even succumb to popular demand. So though Middlemarch is a monumental achievement and a wonderfully enriching read, it is also a bit tedious to see the constant shift in narrative and the long-winding descriptions.

    Apart from that, I haven't really read a very long book. It scares me. I have Don Quixote, which I left after reading 50 odd pages. I intend to take it up again someday.
    Meanwhile, I have a brand new copy of Suitable Boy, which again I'm hesitating to take up. Is it really very good?