Friday, February 17, 2012

The Future of the Really, Really Long Novel

Today my book club will discuss James Michener's The Source

You might ask, "How did you come to choose a book that's over 1000 pages?"

Well, about 6 months ago, we were reminiscing about books that had influenced us, and we talked about reading The Source--at least two of us read it long ago, and we talked about learning about the Middle East by reading Michener. I innocently said, "I wonder if we'd still see it as so revelatory now."

And thus, a plan was born. We decided to read it months later so we'd have time. We've spent the last several months reading our way through human history.

I remember reading it during the summer after I finished high school.  It likely only took me a week.  I was a fast reader, and I didn't have a lot else to do.  I remember finishing it and feeling like I now understood the problems of the Middle East.

Ah, the hubris of the young!  If world history teaches us nothing, it's that we are condemned to repeat the past, but in new and interesting ways.  And the book shows that too.

When I was young and didn't know very much, I loved all the history that Michener includes.  Now as I read, I got frustrated.  I wanted to say, "Yes, James, I understand that you did a lot of research, or that you paid your researchers to bring you lots of material.  But does it really all need to be here?"

It's been a long time since I read such a long novel.  It will probaby be a long time before I attempt it again.

We face choices, whether we realize it or not, in terms of how we spend our time.  If I spend Thursday night watching television, that's several hours that I'm not reading or quilting or writing or collaging or learning something new.

Likewise, when I read a book that's over 1000 pages, on some level those pages represent from me all the other books I'm not going to read.

There are so many books I'm never going to read.  I can live with knowing about all the people I'll never get to know intimately.  I am making my peace with all the careers I'm not going to have in the time I have left.  But my heart breaks a bit at the great books I'm not going to read, even as I understand how impossible the task would be, even if we stopped all publishing right now.
I'm glad I'm not the kind of writer who yearns to write sprawling, Micheneresque novels.  For one thing, I can't imagine they'd ever be published, no matter how masterfully I wrote them.  The modern reader just does not have time to read 1000 + pages.

I've spent the last week writing a short story, which has been a joy.  As a writer, I much prefer the short nugget to the vast canvas.  Maybe I should clarify:  as a writer living my current life, I need to write short stories.

I used to write novels.  I used to read much bigger novels.  Some day I'll have that kind of time again.  Right now, I'm finding time where I can get it and seeing how much I can do with small canvases and short swatches of time.

No comments: