The Stranglehold of the Long Novel

Over this past Thanksgiving weekend, I read through most of Robert Bruce’s blog, 101 Books: Reading my way through Time Magazine’s 100 Greatest Novels. In addition to providing great fodder for future reading material, he’s also written interesting posts about writing, books, and the strange search terms that lead people to his site. A post from June, Can Long Novels Hold You Captive? captivated my attention.

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In high school, I was one of those kids.
Nerd. Dweeb. Dork. Maybe the most appropriate descriptive is “bookish.” I loved to read, and for some strange reason after I entered High School, I got onto a classics kick. I devoured Dickens. I dared Dumas and Dostoevsky to entertain me. The most egregious of my prideful reading sins was battling Tolstoy. I read War and Peace in High School.
I didn’t go on many dates that year. And by “many” I mean “none.”
If you ask me now what I know about War and Peace, I’ll tell you that war happens, and peace happens, but that’s likely not what the book is about. There is no reason for a 15-year-old to read War and Peace. The only reason I ever read it is because it was the longest book I knew existed and I wanted to be able to say that I read an incredibly long book, regardless of the fact that I likely only understood ten percent of it.
Which leads me back to Bruce’s post about the long novel. He links to an article by Mark O’Connell entitled The Stockholm Syndrome Theory of Long Novels which proposes that readers, like captives, can became attached to their kidnapper if even the smallest amount of goodwill is shown to them at any time during their captivity. It’s a great read.
A paragraph that Bruce pulls from that piece resonated with me (emphasis mine):

“You finish the last page of a book like [Pynchon’s] Gravity’s Rainbow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewilderment or frustration or irritation—you think to yourself, ‘that was monumental.’ But it strikes me that this sense of monumentality, this gratified speechlessness that we tend to feel at such moments of closure and valediction, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achievement in having read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achievement in having written it. When you read the kind of novel that promises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow—a Ulysses or a Brothers Karamazov or a Gravity’s Rainbow—there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more problematically, is often difficult to separate from an awe at the fact of your own surmounting of it.

That’s why I read War and Peace. In some strange way, it was an achievement that made a socially awkward and quiet kid feel confident in himself.
Allow me to humblebrag for a moment. (You’ll have an opportunity as well). Since then, I’ve read a number of long books that have held me captive:

  • The Count of Monte Cristo: One of my favorite books of all time
  • The Bible: Also one of my favorite books of all time
  • The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: Series count for this list
  • The Harry Potter Series
  • The Faerie Queen: This is what happens when you become an English Major
  • Steve Jobs
  • Bonhoeffer: This is the book likely responsible for this post. It took me months to finish, but I recently finished it.
  • David Copperfield: Yep. Read it in H.S.
  • The Book of Basketball: One man’s fascinating look at the top NBA players of all time
  • Crime and Punishment
  • Moby Dick
  • East of Eden

Since reading Bruce’s blog and seeing that Infinite Jest was on the list, a book which I’ve started before but didn’t even get past 100 pages, I’m encouraged to give it another try.
Here’s your chance to humblebrag: What long novels have held you captive?