Wednesday, 20 April 2016

A riff on long novels and the Stockholm syndrome theory

1/ I've been reading Moby Dick for over a month. How many books could I have read during that period? Don't know. Do I care? No.
2/ I don't necessarily prefer long books to short books- it depends. But The Death of Ivan Ilyich, albeit a masterpiece, can't compare to Anna Karenina and War and Peace, just as Bartleby, perfect and wonderful as it is, can't compare to Moby Dick, because great ambitions and mighty themes demand a large scope. In long works Tolstoy and Melville can do, or try to do, things that can't be done in short works, and even if they don't successfully accomplish all they aim for, the fact that they try to do so can be admirable enough, and wonderful enough to watch.
3/ Does Mr O'Connell really think people choose to cling stubbornly to a thick book they neither enjoy nor consider great, for the sense of accomplishment at having conquered it? Who has such time, energy and patience?
4/ I gave up on Les Miserables after about 100 pages.
5/ I very much enjoy reading Moby Dick, a lot more than expected. And had lots of fun reading Anna Karenina and War and Peace.
6/ But didn't get as much pleasure from Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda.
7/ Which doesn't mean I didn't see the merits of Middlemarch, which deserves to be called 1 of the greatest British novels.
8/ Though it's hard to say I wouldn't have given up on Daniel Deronda if I'd had the choice.
9/ I gave up on Bleak House.
10/ The suggestion "the greatness of a novel in the mind of its readers is often alloyed with those readers’ sense of their own greatness (as readers) for having conquered it" is an insult.
11/ Which shows the philistinism of the person who thinks it.
12/ And why do some people read again and again and again those thick, difficult, "unenjoyable" books?
13/ Sometimes, after finishing a masterpiece, we feel that something significant has happened, we have changed, in what way we know not, but it's a blessing for which we are forever thankful.
14/ Our minds seem to have been expanded. We feel richer, more alive.
15/ As readers we all have our blind spots, some books don't speak to us, in them we find no worth, in their popularity we find no meaning, but I stop at that. Some people, usually those insensitive to classics or "serious literature" in general, have to create theories about why some others enjoy "the struggle": sense of accomplishment and pretentiousness. I'm surprised nobody has suggested masochism.
16/ Moby Dick is a book about everything. War and Peace is a book about everything. How can a book about everything be a thin book?
17/ Another similarity: both sometimes convey a sense of joy, a love of life that I don't see in Middlemarch. George Eliot's too serious.
18/ I gave up on Resurrection after about 2/3. Or 3/5. Too didactic and repetitive as a whole, though it has many great passages. 
19/ I gave up on Ada or Ardor, after about 4/5. Getting to the end would have given me the "status" that I've read it, struggled all the way through it, conquered it- but why should I want that? 
20/ The Sound and the Fury isn't long, but it's 1 of the challenging books I love that many people don't believe anyone can enjoy. The emperor's new clothes, they say. 
21/ Anything long is perceived as tedious, boring. Anything difficult, because of digressions or because of experiments with the form, is regarded as self-indulgent. 
22/ Anyone who claims to like such things is considered pretentious. A poseur. 
23/ Anyone who says that taste is beside the point, that there are good books and bad books, that it's all about quality, etc. is called a snob. An elitist. 
24/ Giving up a book doesn't mean one will never come back to it. Some books need to come at the right time. 
25/ (If it's assigned, that's different. How people can write essays based on teachers' lectures and SparkNotes or Shmoop is hard to comprehend). 
26/ Though there's greater chance when I give up after a few pages or a few chapters than when I give up after a great half of it. 
27/ I'm not sure Moby Dick should be read in high school. 
28/ I'm not sure why some people choose an easy way to read a classic novel just so they can say they've read it. 
29/ Or why some people claim to have read anything they haven't read at all. 
30/ "One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other." 


  1. O'Connel seems to have a firm grasp on about 1/4 of his topic. my own theory is that writers write themselves, mainly, and that readers read their own books. another way of saying, i guess, that our understanding is limited to our sensory apparatuses, as is our comprehension of reality/world. reading a long tome can stretch our vision and enhance our perception of that mysterious surround in which we live our lives. shorter works, albeit entertaining and occasionally enlightening, are like a spark in the dark, whereas longer works can shine as a beacon in the cosmic paradox in which we live our lives and enable us to know what we're doing better... and who we are... i liked your remarks and agree with almost all of them...

    1. That article annoyed me so much.
      Beacon, hmmm. After this tome I need to find something short to read though. Something really short, and very good but different, because I'll have high expectations after the Whale.

  2. How much of that essay would be left if all of the "I used to do this but now I do that" were cut? But it inspired your list, so that's good. Your approach to long books is admirably non-neurotic.

    1. Hahaha.
      I'm guessing you have to read the whole thing? Do you ever give up on anything, though?

    2. Which important books have you set aside and not tried reading again then?

    3. Wait, you didn't say I couldn't try again.

      Is Ben Okri's Famished Road important? It won the Booker.

    4. I've only read part of Mimesis - now that's an important book!