The Joy of Truly Massive Books

It’s classic month here on the blog, so, like the rest of the staff, I’ve been brushing up my classics, to share overlooked gems.  One thing I’ve noticed in our discussions, both on the blog and face to face, is that modern people like a classic that’s short.  Truth be told, they like all modern books short.  They like novels short.  They like a plot that goes over just a few points.  Three twists and you’re out. They also like genre. They like the familiar.  They like knowing how a love story works, and how a western works, and that most fantasy is a bildungsroman. No-one has time for a complicated plot. No-one has time for a book that doesn’t guarantee an ending they’ll like. If you have only 15 minutes here and there for reading, who has time for a book that has more than four main characters?

I’d like to suggest, that just for this month, you try going old school on a classic book.  And by old school, I mean, you deliberately choose one that’s the size of a brick, and you give it time.

Now, I’m not saying you need to read turgid and depressing Russian novels, unless you like that sort of thing.  What I’m trying to suggest is that, for classics month, I’ve been working my way through some books with sufficient heft to crush to death a clumsy reader who slips removing them from a high shelf.  (I know this to be true, because one of my cats knocked a Folio edition of The Black Death off the top shelf above my computer desk, sending tea, papers and a mock ham sandwich flying, and me rocketing across the room on my castored chair, propelled by instinct and reflex.) I’ve also been listening to them in audiobook, which means I don’t get to gloss over the slow parts: I’ve surrendered the speed of the read to the author and performer.

Now, this sounds, I know, like the perfect recipe for absolute boredom.  This is, superficially, tedium on a plate served with a side of pomposity. The odd thing is, provided you choose the right classic, it’s not that at all. It’s really interesting to read books in the way that, once, everyone read books.  It interesting to know that you and the author are going to wrestle with a set of ideas together, and its going to take you a very, very long time, because the author’s ideas will go past mere assertion.

I’ve just finished an unabridged version of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which is eight volumes long, and, with the exception of some meandering about when Islam arises in the deserts of Arabia, is actually fascinating. I’ve working through The Wealth of Nations, and again you’d think it would be as dull as anything, but it’s actually quite a sprightly yarn in places. I’ve also worked through most of Shakespeare’s plays: the last one was The Merry Wives of Windsor. Agreeing immediately with people who say these plays should be watched rather than read, I’d suggest that audiobook versions of them can be quite captivating. I’ve been doing little bits in some for Librivox…mostly playing soothsayers, for which Shakespearean plays have a suprisingly high demand.

A point I’d like to make, when throwing down this challenge to pick a book the size of a brick, is that people really already do this.  Did you read the Harry Potter series?  You know what I mean about them being suitable ammunition for a medieval siege engine, right? Have you ever worked your way through a series, as I recently did with Temeraire and Artemis Fowl? Then you have been doing the equivalent of a big classic, it’s just the author has made you pick the thing up in lots of little books, instead of putting them under one cover.

Reading classics – and in this I mean physically substantial classics – is a wonderfully different way to read, if, like most of us, modern life has gotten the better of you and reading is a thing you squeeze in. I’d encourage you to try it. It is almost as different as reading aloud (which is another thing I’d encourage you to try, although that’s for another post.)