Commitment Issues

Sadly, I’ve always thought that big, fat books were so right up my alley, to the extent that I’d welcome spending days and days and days with a single tome. Sure, I guess: Growing up with the increasingly fatter Harry Potters, the Terry Goodkind epics, the—oh, hell, what else?

Fat books haven’t been part of my reading lists lately, possibly because:

  1. I have so many books—just looking at the stacks and teetering and the tottering could have me breathing into a plastic bag—ergo, most of the time I’d rather pick up a thin slice of goodness than an uncertain, uneven Volume;
  2. I am afraid of being shackled to a book for too-long a time, I know my impatience, my fickleness, my desire to move on to different pastures—reading books simultaneously wouldn’t be enough: once I start to itch, dammit, I have to throw the book away or suffer—commitment issues for the frazzled book-hoarder;
  3. Shit’s too heavy to lug around on my daily train commutes.

But sometimes the fat books call. The epics you wish wouldn’t end—bring on the epilogues, please! The close-to-your-heart books that you wish had smaller type. The comfort of returning to a character you’ve grown to love / hate / admire / wish you had written.

Sometimes, you want to immerse yourself in one world for a couple of days, you want to get lost, you want to surgically graft yourself to a character.

April, with all its restlessness, seemed to inevitably point to that end. Near the close of this month, I read two really fat books [900 pages, 700 pages] in succession. One wildly succeeded, the other failed miserably. It figures.

The success: The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber—which I had hemmed and hawed about buying because of its girth and its thin onionskinnish pages. Oh, lord, I loved this one to bits. So rich and dense and lyrical and lewd. This one, I read in the span of two weeks, returning to it at the end of the day, when I’d set aside my thinner books, my work, my walking shoes. Its enchantment over me survived a three-day sojourn to a mountain seven hours away from home.

Its main character has been nagging at me to leave Stoya a little note, telling her she was the Sugar in my head all the time I was reading. Sugar, the prostitute intent on bettering her life—no martyrdom here, no morality, but sheer ambition. A reckless “rise” from being the lascivious, servicing star of seedy Victoriana—to the musty upper echelons of the nouveau riche. Glorious, glorious.

We meet many other characters, too—complex or cardboard when it suits them, but everyone so vibrant and vivid that you’re glad of every glimpse, every blush-inducing whore’s tricks, every feinted faint of delicate pale beauties, every clash of propriety and complete profanity.

The failure: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova—which I’d bought on impulse, intrigued by its premise and ambitions stuffed in an awkward mass-market paperback edition.

This was a horrific experience for me—sonorous, mostly, because it unsubtly wouldn’t get to whatever damn point it was trying to make: Nearly everything in this novel is secondhand-to-the-nth-degree information—the novel is narrated by an elderly woman looking back on a fateful summer of discovery, in which her fathers tells her of disjointed tales, tales in which letters and books and obscure runes told him tales, and blah and blah and blah. I began getting impatient—impatient, not intrigued, not hungry for more—was early on, when the father would start fidgeting after an episode recounted. He’d get scared, or he’d want a glass of water, or some other stupid diversion, some lackluster temporary end to the storytelling.

The reader isn’t allowed to experience anything firsthand. I understand that central to this novel is the whole literary-ness of history, how true or untrue it could be, how those we encounter it must be compelled to verify its claims. I get that. But having an inkling as to the author’s intentions does not make exciting reading.

And how infuriating is it that the dude all these people have been searching and hunting for—Dracula, to the layman—is, by far, the most interesting creature in this cursed book, and he appears in what, the last teensy pinch of pages? That he could have redeemed it all, but the author didn’t think it wise? That I so dearly wanted a chance to experience it, not to be told about—even Dracula is relegated to letters!

I stayed up all night reading the first half—so it is addictive, all those pesky cliffhangers, your curiosity. When I returned to the book, however, after one measly day of work, it stank. I hated it, I skimmed it, I guffawed at the revelations, I keened at the awkward subplots sneaked in at the end of the book: I basically stuck my tongue out at the book and wished it eternal damnation.

* * *

Hm. I think that when I began this post, it was meant to be a celebration of fat books, regardless of the mires that are usual in book-devouring. But, well, you saw what happened.

7 thoughts on “Commitment Issues

  1. I liked both of these. Must re-read Crimson sometime, because it IS that sort of book. It took Faber 20 years to write, I believe. Imagine that! Doubt I’ll want to read The Historian ever again. I started The Swan Theives, but yeah, it went back on the shelf.

    I like fat books because I feel that I’m getting my money’s worth out of them. No, seriously, I love having a fat book in which to lose myself for a few days.

    Sounds as though you got your blogging voice back. Yay! :)

  2. I completely understand your long-book commitment issues. I too started shying away from the fatter books in the past few years. I’m now in the midst of a quite large, almost 700-paged book but I’m enjoying it immensely. Sure, the book might have been a dud, but it might have been a short dud as well. The only difference is the matter of time wasted, and as I learn to relax more with my reading, this concern shrinks. It’s quite nice, actually.

  3. Fat books – the bane of my life. I have more chunksters than I’d like to, but there’s something about beginning a fat book that is incredible and you don’t want it to end. That said, I have struggled with Gravity’s Rainbow and 2666, and both sit unfinished, taunting me. Damn ’em.

    I’m planning on reading the Faber later in the summer, and luckily, The Historian never made it to my to-read list/shelf. Sucks when you find a book that you end up wishing eternal damnation to.

  4. Aww, I’m sorry to hear you didn’t like The Historian. But I can see how it can be really unappealing.

  5. I’m with Violet, I like fat books because I feel I’m getting my money’s worth. Ok, not just that, but still.

    I’m afraid I felt the opposite and preferred The Historian although I admit the ending was a bit of a let down. But I seem to be in the minority here. However, I was very excited by the TV adaptation of The Crimson Petal and the White, but alas, even Romola Garai (and she’s a damned fine actress) couldn’t induce me to watch more than 2 episodes.


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