On reading gigantic books


Will I lose these 10 pounds by springtime?

I bumped into my good buddy Cliff a couple of weeks ago, and he got me thinking about "giant books."  He said that he has a list of large-form novels he's wanted to read for years, but he's been intimidated by their size and scope.  But now he finished one and loved it, and he's hungry for more.

I don't know if the change of the seasons inspired me somehow, but I too am excited about giant novels since this conversation. I decided to read some giant novels I've missed over the years and re-read a few I haven't read since college.  So I've stocked up on giant books for winter, like some kind of alopecic indoor squirrel.

Here's my list for the season:

William Gaddis - The Recognitions.  Never read it.  If I end up liking it, I'll add JR to my list, too.
William Gass - The Tunnel.  Never read it, but I'm impressed with the 30-year backstory on its composition.
James Joyce - Ulysses.  Read it in college, but it's been a while.
David Foster Wallace - Infinite Jest.  Read in college, loved it, looking forward to entering that world again.
Joseph McElroy - Women and Men.  Never read.
Malcom Lowry - Under the Volcano.  Never read but heard it described as "a Mexican Ulysses."  Sounds great!
Richard Powers - The Gold Bug Variations.  Never read it, but I've read some other books by Powers that I really liked.

Along with some other reading I'm already doing, I imagine these will be more than enough for the season.  But if I finish those, I'll add:

Gilbert Sorrentino: Mulligan Stew.  Never read.
David Markson: Wittgenstein's Mistress.  Never read.

When I was talking with Cliff about huge books, I remarked how I would highly recommend reading them straight through, instead of feeling like you need to stop and look up every reference you don't already understand, keep track of every detail, etc.  Just get in the flow and read, and if you admire the overall work enough, you can always go back and read again to pull out more details.

I've heard lots of folks talk about how intimidating Ulysses and Infinite Jest are over the years, and I always got the impression they felt like they had to pull in every detail and layer as they read.  Indeed, that could make for an unpleasant and time consuming assignment.  But I guarantee you that if you like reading, simply reading the books straight through, staying with their internal pace and flow instead of hesitating, they're incredibly fun to read.

Huge books are like little universes all their own.  And no one expects you to "understand" a universe as a prerequsite to enjoyment or participation in it.  All of those details have to be there to create the universe, but just like getting through a typical day can be a complex barrage of sensory input, your brain can filter out the parts that aren't critical to your immediate experience.

But don't take my word for it.  Consider this great observation by William Gass from his introduction to Gaddis' Recognitions, which I think could apply to the reading of any large book:

"There's no need for haste, the pages which lie ahead of you will lie ahead of you for as long as you like them to; it is perfectly all right if some things are at first unclear, and if there are references you don't recognize; just go happily on; we don't stay in bed all day, do we? just because we've mislaid our appointment calendar.  No, we need to understand this book--enjoy its wit, its irony, its erudition, its sensuous embodiment--the way we understand a spouse we have lived with and listened to and loved for many years through al their nights.  Persons deserving such devotion and instinctual appreciation are rare; rarer still are the works which are worth it."

Or consider Mortimer Adler's perspective, co-author of the classic How to Read a Book:

"Dear Dr. Adler,
To tell you the truth, I find the so-called great books very difficult to read. I am willing to take your word for it that they are great. But how am I to appreciate the them if they are too hard for me to read? Can you give me some helpful hints on how to read a hard book?

THE MOST IMPORTANT RULE about reading is one that I have told my great books seminars again and again: In reading a difficult book for the first time, read the book through without stopping. Pay attention to what you can understand, and don't be stopped by what you can't immediately grasp on this way. Read the book through undeterred by the paragraphs, footnotes, arguments, and references that escape you. If you stop at any of these stumbling blocks, if you let yourself get stalled, you are lost. In most cases you won't be able to puzzle the thing out by sticking to it. You have better chance of understanding it on a second reading, but that requires you to read the book through for the first time.
This is the most practical method I know to break the crust of a book, to get the feel and general sense of it, and to come to terms with its structure as quickly and as easily as possible. The longer you delay in getting some sense of the over-all plan of a book, the longer you are in understanding it. You simply must have some grasp of the whole before you can see the parts in their true perspective -- or often in any perspective at all."


You can read the rest of Adler's commentary here.

My only concern now is keeping my bike upright as I transport these mammoths around while reading them!

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