Bookish Thoughts: Reading ‘Vast Books’

I have a confession to make. I’m not proud of myself, but I know that accepting my own faults and failures is an important step in bettering myself. So here goes:

Since completing my MA dissertation, I have stopped writing. I have not felt even the slightest desire to write these past two months. I’ve just had a complete lack of interest.

Obviously this lack of motivation for writing has meant letting this little blog lay fallow. Hopefully this time of neglect will prove not unlike the agricultural practice and restore the blog’s fertility. [My wealth of agricultural metaphors sure does come in handy for making excuses.] And so as NaNoWriMo approacheth, I have decided that the best course of action is to just jump right in. Yes, the water will be cold and it will be shockingly uncomfortable at first, but it’s the only way. Otherwise I would probably change my mind after feeling how cold the water is and settle for just sitting on the side of the pool, only dangling my feet in the water and watching everyone else have fun.

I’ve decided that this November I will not only be attempting to write a novel, I will also be devoting the month to all kinds of writing, including this blog (also my research proposals and personal statements for PhD applications). There has been no lack of reading these past two months, so I know that I have plenty to write about for this blog. I just have to sit down and actually write. So here I am.

I think I needed this time off from writing, because even if my creative impulses have become stiff and rusty, I’ve fallen back in love with fully hedonistic reading. For the past four years I’ve turned my love of reading into studying. I am a nerd at heart and so I love studying and combining two of my favourite things has given my life a path and been wonderfully fulfilling. Yet these past two months have made me realise that maybe I did give something up. Or maybe it’s just that now that on this gap year without academia to fill my life I’ve been floundering about with no sense of purpose and had to escape. For whatever reason, I’ve found myself completely rediscovering the joy of big, thick, doorstop novels.

Recently Read, Currently Reading
The Secret History by Donna Tartt, 629 pages
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, 484 pages
Daniel Deronda by George Eliot, 695 pages
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt, 555 pages
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, 923 pages
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, 672 pages

Next up
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (it’s a whole thing, as my boyfriend would say), 771 pages
The Bronze Horseman by Paulina Simons, 656 pages
American Gods by Neil Gaiman, 635 pages
The Virgin in the Garden by A. S. Byatt, 566 pages
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, 832 pages

As you can tell from the two lists, of late I have been drawn to novels of at least 450 pages. (Bring Up the Bodies is the only book on those lists that is under 500. Although I personally think it feels like an even longer book when you’re reading it because of the depth of detail and Mantel’s very tight prose.) I have relished losing myself in long, elaborate stories and richly drawn storyworlds. But just one big book is not enough, I have been reading multiple novels at once. I like to dip into each one every few days and draw all of the different stories around me like a cocoon. Sometimes it feels like I am insulated from the rest of the world by these books.

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories recently and why I feel so safe when I’m fully ensconced in one (or many). It’s not just the escapism, losing oneself in a good story and letting life’s worries fall away. It’s a bit more complex than that because anyone can escape into a story be it long or short. A story needn’t be long to be engrossing. But recently I’ve been basking in the cosy warmth of great, big books. It’s almost as if I’m hoping to just languish among these stories until there’s nothing left of me, decaying as I devour. That’s the strangeness of my new obsession. The stories are not just filling me up, but also using me up.

Jorge Luis Borges, best known for his short stories, famously remarked that it is ‘a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books’. Laborious is certainly one word to describe the experience of reading such books as well. And for me it is a welcome labour. There’s been a void in my life with nothing to study, no degree to obtain. This laborious experience of read ‘vast books’ has replaced the studious labours I have always loved so well. Borges’ quote is peculiarly perceptive here for this reading is not the same kind of experience as, for example, writing a postgraduate thesis. Writing my dissertation was laborious, but also fruitful. Reading these ‘vast books’, however, has indeed been ‘impoverishing’. But I do not view this impoverishment as a negative experience (as I think Borges might have done).

Earlier I stated that I feel as though my devotion to the academic study of literature has meant giving up something. It is this impoverishment in reading that is absent in academia. One of the pure joys of reading is, of course, to lose oneself. But this common experience is often not as simple as it sounds. The reading that I have been experiencing of late is not productive. I am not adding new gems to the treasure trove of literary truths I, like all academic readers, hoard near to my heart. Not while I am reading. Instead I am giving up myself and what I know. It is an act of subsumption.

‘The thing about reading is that in reading, we become ghosts.’ – Simon Critchley, in a brilliant interview I highly recommend reading over at Full Stop.

In reading these ‘vast books’, I haven’t lost myself so much as I’ve given up my self. I’ve become a ghost, intangible and timeless, but also unmoored to a life or an identity. The act if reading has become a loss, an impoverishment. I give up everything I know as the story unfolds. When I read the final sentence and put the book aside, I feel less than I was when I began reading, as though the book has taken something from me. It’s a welcome feeling, though, to give yourself in reading. Then after I have left the book behind, hours or days later, then the story gives me something in return – a feeling of satisfaction to be sure, but also that new, slightly altered worldview that comes with every great book, the literary truth that send academics to their desks to write up analyses. But the rewards can only come after the laborious and impoverishing madness of reading.


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