On Reading Long Books
If you’ve been following the blog for a while, you’ll know that I’ve been slogging through Middlemarch, a Victorian novel in the same vein as Jane Austen or Jane Eyre, except quite a bit longer. Perhaps slog is not the right word.* I first read this when I was in university, not for a class, and I vaguely recall really enjoying it, which has left me with a sense of both surprise and also some moderate concern that my brain has apparently atrophied so greatly since then that I have been struggling through it now. When I first read it, I was traveling and someone had given her copy to me, and perhaps the fact that I was in a place without internet for a couple of months contributed to the fact that any book of any form was going to be more interesting than staring out my window, beautiful as the view was.
The reason I even have it in my possession now is that I was following up on a book that I absolutely loved (Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese) and I read that the author had said that he really liked Middlemarch and considered it an influential book for him. How casually I thought to myself, well now, I did enjoy the first time! So I put it on hold through the library, it came in, and I was just starting it before the pandemic started closing things down.
The timing has been interesting for a number of reasons. I’m seeing it pop up on a number of quarantine book lists, particularly ones of books that are extremely long and require lots of time and effort to get through. (Unfortunately it seems like it’s a bit of the opposite for me, I feel like I have less time for leisure reading than I did before, but I am seeing lots of reminders of its presence in my life.) The novel features the development of a hospital in provincial Middlemarch, in fear of the appearance of cholera in London. It’s over 800 pages, longer than books I normally read, a lengthy book that has stretched out the finite number of library books in my possession now that the library has closed, not that I am a particularly speedy reader in the best of times. Another way to look at is that the library has extended the due dates of all borrowed materials to the end of August, as though they’re giving me plenty of time to finish this one.
I’m of two minds when it comes to finishing tough books. On the one hand, life is too short to be muscling through books that aren’t doing it for you. On the other hand, maybe there is something to be learned from muscling through a difficult or challenging book, particularly if you have reason to believe it’s good, or that other people you know or respect have thought so. I think a common yardstick is to consider stopping if a book hasn’t grabbed you after the first 50 pages, which is not a bad way to go about things.
But I’m writing about this blog post now, because I’m nearly finished! The light at the end of the tunnel is but a spark, but at least I can see it. Am I celebrating too early? Yes, a little. But you know what, I will take what I can get. It took me over a month to get through the first half of it, but now things in the story have really picked up, and I’m relieved to remember why I enjoyed it in the first place. Things are starting to get delightfully spicy between the characters, and I’ve been reading snippets of one husband’s horror and dismay at his wife’s spending and consequent erratic behaviour aloud to Jon (ah! The cost of cutlery back in the day! If only he appreciated how lucky he is now) and enjoying young romance hindered by family and societal expectations. A scandalous will! (In fact, more than one!) A rebellious daughter running away with a Polish (!) artist! A man named Raffles!
Do I recommend it? Sure, if you’ve got the time and inclination. It is smart and funny and sharp and true, and there is a delicious sense of the characters and despite it being quite a period piece, there are things that ring clear to this day. Puppy love and true love, money, how politics can ruin a perfectly good dinner.
In any case, I hope you’re all reading something good.
*Perhaps it is.