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Book’s too long or life’s too short?

Jim McCarthy and I spend an inordinate amount of time instant messaging each other about everything from our lunch orders to what horrible fashion choices Lena Dunham has made lately.  This morning, our exchange went like this:

 jmccarthy@dystel.com 9:09 am
have you heard about this 3,000 page norwegian autobiographical novel My Struggle?

Mcgoderich 9:10 amMY STRUGGLE by Karl Ove Knausgaard
uh…no
sounds…deadly

 jmccarthy@dystel.com 9:11 am
it’s getting an absurd amount of press. i decided to give it a shot. i’m 50 pages  into volume 1 (of 6), so i can speak on it pretty authoritatively.
it’s…really good
so far

Mcgoderich 9:12 am
what’s it about?

 jmccarthy@dystel.com 9:14 am
it’s kind of just about his incredibly ordinary life. and it feels like it should be just a whole lot of navel-gazing except for the fact that he’s incredibly thoughtful and brutally honest.

Jim and I tend to have similar responses to fiction (with the glaring, appalling exception of Atonement, which I consider brilliant and he “meh”),  so I generally trust his judgment when it comes to recommendations for new reading material.   But, while we are both voracious readers, Jim still has the will and wherewithal to tackle massive literary novels with relish whereas I often look on them with fear and trepidation.  I feel like what he’s describing above can be handled by Nicholson Baker in under 300 pages.  Three thousand pages full of “the ordinariness of life, which is sometimes visionary, sometimes banal, and sometimes momentous, but all of it perforce ordinary because it happens in the course of a life, and happens, in different forms, to everyone…,” as the New Yorker puts it, makes me just want to take a nap.

Maybe it’s old age, mommy brain, or general crankiness, but I want my fiction to be more…extraordinary.  And shorter.  Yeah, definitely shorter.

What about you guys?  Do you gravitate towards this kind of minutely observed life narrative or do you shelve it in a corner of your mind under “some day I’ll read Finnegan’s Wake”?

9 Responses to Book’s too long or life’s too short?

  1. Joelle says:

    I’m with you. But this year I tackled a few doozies. THE LUMINARIES and THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS were two biggies and frankly, I thought they could’ve ended sooner. I just tried SUMMERLAND and after about 150 pages I thought, “I really like this, but I feel like I’ve gotten the gist of it and don’t really care if I finish.” And I think that really had to do with the fact there was so much more. If it had another 100 pages, I probably would’ve happily finished it, but it had 300 more or something.

    It’s not a short attention span either, I don’t think. I can read for hours.

    Oh, and by the way, I didn’t read THE GOLDFINCH when it came from the library because it was sooooo long and it was due back in two weeks. Ha!

  2. I used to be put off by the “massive tome,” but not so much nowadays, thanks in large part to ebooks and old-man-friendly adjustable fonts. Within the last year or so, I’ve read (and reread) several doorstops as ebooks, including THE GOLDFINCH, GRAVITY’S RAINBOW (reread), FAR FROM THE TREE, FREEDOM, SALINGER, UNDERWORLD (reread), THE LONELY POLYGAMIST, etc. I find that as long as the world of the novel is sufficiently engaging (and I’m having fun being there) then length doesn’t really matter. On the screen, all ebooks are equal, their heft weighed not in pounds but in the quality of their words. The one downside is you really can’t use an ebook to knockout an intruder, should you be faced with one while reading. Otherwise, to quote people who use the expression “it’s all good,” it’s all good.

  3. Lynn says:

    As Dave said, the number of pages doesn’t matter as long as I’m enjoying the story. On the other hand, I’m with you, Miriam – give me extraordinary! Life is too short to read 3000 pages about someone’s ordinary struggles. I have my own, thank you very much.

    As for Finnegan’s Wake, I think H.G. Wells says it best about Joyce’s work: “I ask: who the hell is this Joyce who demands so many waking hours of the few thousands I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?”

    • D. C. DaCosta says:

      Splendid comment re: Joyce. It’s long been my opinion that he hoodwinked three generations into thinking that his muddle of angst and vulgarisms was somehow “literature”. Complete trash.

  4. I’m protective of my reading time as well, since it seems so often to be in short supply. However, I will occasionally plow through a house-sized book without breaking a sweat. That was true with Underworld. I don’t think I put it down until I reached page 500. If a story demands the real estate, I’ll usually stick with it. It’s pretty easy to tell early on. That said, Knausgaard is my to-read list. I read his essay “The Other Side of the Face” in the Paris Review and was completely bowled over by his brilliant prose. He’s intellectually very seductive. Let’s see if I feel the same way when and if I reach book 3 of the series…

  5. D. C. DaCosta says:

    IMHO, life is too short to spent a lot of time listening to people who have nothing to say and can’t say it succinctly.

    Regarding “My Struggle” – if we were talking about “Mein Kampf”, we’d know he had something to say. But if his life is prosaic and mine is prosaic…why should I read about his? What would I learn that I haven’t already figured out for myself?

    A reader wants to learn. He learns by living vicariously through the lives of others (fictional or real). If the lesson is provocative enough, AND if the writing is of decent quality, the length of the work is largely unimportant.

    I finally finished the last volume of Churchill’s “History of the Second World War”, and a jolly good, lesson-filled adventure it was. But — Churchill lived an extraordinary life, had much to say, and said it with much skill.

    And…to coin a phrase…that has made all the difference.

  6. Miriam says:

    You guys are really funny. I remember sitting in a graduate seminar discussing the Gorgonzola theme in ULYSSES and thinking, “I don’t think I can keep taking out student loans for this.” And, yes, there are very lengthy books that I read with relish, but they tend toward the more…extraordinary.

    • Lynn says:

      Miriam, thanks for the laugh! I can see your point, but food, as you know, is very symbolic and Joyce’s use of Gorgonzola cheese and his description is very telling. I use food often in my WIP, but it’s not surprising because the story takes place here in Paris which, of course, is known for its excellent food, wines, and robust cheeses!

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