Size Matters I: Fat Books I Have Loved
Actually “Fat Books I Have Loved the Idea of Reading” would make a more accurate title, but it wouldn’t be half as snappy, so there you go.
Women will tell you, lying through their teeth all the while, that size doesn’t matter. To be fair, there are some areas where size does matter—we don’t need to go into those here—and I certainly don’t want anyone to hold against me the fact that I am size-challenged in the height department. But one arena in which size has always mattered is in the length of a book. The way a reader approaches a skinny book as opposed to a fat one—there’s a huge difference. When a person is younger, feeling as though there’s still all the time in the world, taking on a big book may be daunting but it’s also a delicious challenge, kind of like taking on Everest before one realizes that a person could actually die up there. But as time treads on, as one moves through middle age and Kipling’s unforgiving minute becomes more literal truth than literary metaphor, choices concerning how to spend the remainder of one’s reading life become critical. Reading a big book is such an investment. A commitment. A sacrifice. The mind says, “Yes, if I take on this thousand-page behemoth I may feel a sense of perverse accomplishment, but is it really worth it? I could read three other books in the same period!”
Here, for better or worse, is a sampling of the doorstoppers I’ve read at various stages of my life so far.
The Portable Jung, Karl Jung, 704 pp. The page count on that is misleading. My God, with that tiny print and those narrow margins, this should easily count as a thousand-pager. The only nonfiction title you’ll find on this list, I read this entire book in 1974, comprehending very little of it, when I was twelve years old living in my parents’ house. My motivation? Love, of course! I had a crush on an older boy. Okay, he was nineteen and a freshman in college, but I’d done the math: when he was one hundred, I’d be ninety-three, and no one would point fingers anymore. So there. The thing was, this boy was a psych major, which suddenly seemed to me to be a very fine field of study. I figured, though, if I were to hold my own in a conversation, I’d better bone up. Briefly, I considered Freud. Just as quickly, I rejected it. Freud seemed so old school. Jung, on the other hand, even the name—he sounded hip, in the lingo of the day, interestingly alternative. All I can say is, it’s possible to go through the physical act of reading 704 pages, to read every word with no skimming, and still have no clue as to what you’ve just ingested. The anima, animus, and syzygy? It was all just a strange-word muddle to me back then, although I did wisely suspect that those words might come in handy when it came to Scrabble. But the rest of it? Suffice it to say that while I did grasp the concept of the collective unconscious, it did not carry me very far when using it as a conversational gambit in terms of convincing that older boy that I was just the girl for him. Ah, the things we do for love!
The Stand, Stephen King, 823 pp. Note the page count: while longer than Jung, this version that I read in 1979 is still 330 pages shorter than the 1,153-page edition that later appeared complete and uncut in 1990. I was a freshman in college, living in my first dorm, when I read the original and all I can say is that any book that can hold a college freshman’s attention as pleasure reading, when there’s so much required reading and new beers to try vying for attention, is a very gripping book indeed. For years, when asked to make my Top 10 list of all-time favorite reads this cross-country apocalyptic novel regularly appeared. But it wouldn’t today. Somehow the idea of people being phlegmed to death—yes, I know ‘phlegmed’ is not a verb but it certainly seems so in the book as the plague manifests itself in disgusting yellow-green fashion—no longer holds its appeal. Were I younger, I might take on the complete and uncut version in order to see if I’m wrong about that, but I’m not and I won’t.
Sacajawea, Anna Lee Waldo, 1,424 pp. Let me set the scene for you here. It’s the summer of 1984. I have a job in a bookstore. For lodging, I’m part of a house-share situation in Redding, CT, where my part is a room over a garage. I have no heat up there in the winter, no bathroom up there at any time of the year. For that luxury, as well as to cook, I must go into the main house, where the owner is, hmm . . . strange. But that’s another story. Because it’s the summer of 1984, I have a week off from work, I have no money to go away, and so how do I opt to spend my vacation? Lying on a rickety lounge chair on the deck with no sunscreen—because I’m a lunatic—baking in the midsummer heat while knocking back beers and making my way through a novel, the cover of which trumpets, “Clad in a doeskin, alone and unafraid, she stood straight and proud before the onrushing forces of America's destiny: Sacajawea, child of a Shoshoni chief, lone woman on Lewis and Clark's historic trek—beautiful spear of a dying nation.” What can I say? Somehow I’d convinced myself that reading this book would be like going on an exotic weeklong vacation. I was particularly keen because the cover had further promised, “She knew many men, walked many miles.” The many miles? Eh. But the many men certainly sounded good. And the end result? I did enjoy the story, but were all one thousand, four hundred and twenty-four pages absolutely necessary? By vacation’s end, I’d finished the book, drank countless beers, and visited the indoor bathroom many times.
Maia, Richard Adams, 1,062 pp. By the time I read this book in 1985 I had moved to a place with indoor plumbing—Spike the aquatic cat had her own sink she could nap in as water dripped on her calico fur—although my bedroom and living room were still basically the same room. I don’t know why people always go on and on about Watership Down like it’s some kind of classic or something when Mr. Adams’ true genius shows in the under-appreciated The Girl in a Swing and this, his magnum opus. The epic novel tells the story of the eponymous heroine, daughter of a poor fisherman in the mythical empire of Bekla, who’s sold as a concubine, at which point she strikes up a friendship with Occula, a black slave. No plot description can do justice to the allure of this book, no brief literary analysis can convey its strengths. So I’ll say this instead: I could have read this novel far faster than I did. Being under-employed at the time, I could have probably read it in two days, three days tops. But I refused to. Instead, I rationed myself to just one hundred pages a day so that I could live inside Mr. Adams’ fantastical novel that much longer.
The Quincunx, Charles Palliser, 800 pp. When we talk about the Dickensian novel, sometimes we’re referring to the size of a book or the Victorian setting or the social and philosophical themes or the fact that improbable coincidence plays a big part in the outcome. The Quincunx qualifies as Dickensian on all of those parameters. By November 1990 I had been back in the bookstore for three years only now I was living over a florist shop in an apartment where there was an actual door separating the bedroom from the living room. Ah, upward mobility! There was a lot of bustle in the literary world about a new book that had taken its author twelve years to write. I was dying to read the book, not least because it had a stunning black cover with silver and gold accents and a key motif. Unfortunately my boss was not as thrilled with the idea of me reading it. She felt that with its tiny print—really, it could have easily been published on twice as many pages—it would take too much time away from reading other books that I might recommend to our picky clientele. So once again I found myself on reading rations. If memory serves, it took me five weeks to complete the book in secret while reading many others at the same time that I could sell-sell-sell. Was all that time spent surreptitiously reading worth it? It’s tough to say two decades later. I will say that I loved all the crazy coincidences, all those moments of readerly “Aha!” when you realize that some minor tidbit you thought didn’t matter five hundred pages ago suddenly makes sense in a big way. I think in some ways that’s the mark of a great “big” book: it not only transports you on an extended journey of mood and experience, but it also makes you feel that all that size is somehow essential.
The Memoirs of Cleopatra, Margaret George, 976 pp. I know I’ve mentioned this book on BiblioBuffet before, but no overview of fat books I’ve read would be complete without it. By the time I read the book in 1998 I’d long since moved to the place I still live, where I even have my own basement cave of an office. If you’ve read me wax on about The Memoirs of Cleopatra in these pages previously, then you already know the rap: how Publishers Weekly, for which I was a reviewer at the time, sent it to me while I was suffering a midsummer flu; how I groaned at the size of it, thinking I only had the usual one-week turnaround to file my review and how that week I also had to read a 750-page book for which I was to write a reader’s companion; how I fell so in love with the book I wound up reading the whole thing in a four-day fever dream. I did love it and have loved it every time I’ve read it since. It’s got everything: history, military campaigns and not one but two compelling romances. It is quite a feat when a novel takes as its subject a story so well known that the reader knows in advance exactly how it’s all going to end—with just about everybody dead—and yet the reader is on the edge of her seat for the duration, thrilled with the journey.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke, 800 pp. If a person rations out the pages of some books because she wants to make the experience last and last, if a person rations out the pages of other books because she has a boss that thinks a better investment of her time would be to read a greater quantity of books, some books find themselves put on the ration plan so as to avoid reader resentment. By the time I read Ms. Clarke’s debut in fall 2005, I’d already read all the buzz about it: how this, like The Quincunx, was another book that had been long in the making, in this case ten years. I can’t imagine taking ten years to write one book; for, if the time investment in reading a doorstopper when one could read several books in the meantime is daunting, then surely writing one book when one could write several is more daunting to a writer still. As I began reading the story of two magicians during the Napoleonic Wars something struck me: I was over forty years old, life was getting shorter by the minute, and if I forsook other reading to engage with the book straight through, as enjoyable as the book was on many levels, I would resent the hell out of it on behalf of all I was giving up. So I put myself on a 100-page-a-day ration and there I happily remained.
It occurs to me now that my relationship with fat books is something akin to a person’s relationship with being in love. When you’re young, you fall head over heels so quickly you’re willing to throw yourself into the experience, like throwing oneself into The Portable Jung without thinking about what you’re letting yourself in for. As you grow a little older, you’re still able to lose yourself entirely in the love, in the story. But grow old enough and you become more cautious, saying of love, “Well, let’s take this one step at a time and see how it works out,” dipping your toe into the story rather than going right away for full-body immersion. Wouldn’t want to commit too quickly! Of course then there are the loves and the books that immediately fit you so well, you keep going back again and again, like me with The Memoirs of Cleopatra, like a rat hitting a lever for cheese. Uh-oh. Looks like I’ve used up my quota of similes and metaphors for one paragraph.
So there you have it: a brief survey of fat books I loved the idea of reading and even a few that I genuinely loved. Wow, it looks like it’s been nearly five years since I read a fat book and now it’s a particularly long winter with lots of time to read. I’d better start looking for something fat. Ooh, look, in the other room—is that a copy of M.M. Kaye’s 955-page The Far Pavilions I never got around to reading?
Sometime in the future, a companion piece to “Size Matters” will run here. I’d tell you what the subtitle will be, but why spoil the suspense?
Books mentioned in this column:
The Portable Jung by Carl Gustav Jung (Penguin, 1974)
The Stand by Stephen King (Doubleday, 1978)
Sacajawea by Anna Lee Waldo (Avon, 1984)
Maia by Richard Adams (Alfred A. Knopf, 1984)
Watership Down by Richard Adams (Scribner, 1974)
Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams (Alfred A. Knopf, 1980)
The Quincunx by Charles Palliser (Ballantine Books, 1990)
The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George (St. Martin’s Press, 1997)
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna A. Clarke (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004)
The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye (St. Martin’s Press, 1978)
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Lauren Baratz-Logsted has sold twenty books to six publishers since 2003. Her published novels include The Thin Pink Line and Vertigo for adults; Crazy Beautiful for teens, Me, In Between for tweens; and the first four of The Sisters 8, a nine-book series for young readers, co-written with her novelist husband Greg Logsted and their nine-year-old daughter Jackie. In the year 2010 she'll have four more books published, including two more titles in The Sisters 8 series, The Education of Bet for teens and one more teen title. Lauren still lives in Danbury, CT, where she writes and reads pretty much all the time. You can read more about Lauren’s life and work (and contact her) at her personal website and the Sisters 8 site. Contact Lauren.