Books, fast and slow; Or, I’m pacing myself

On Sunday, I started reading Ludmila Ulitskaya’s massive novel The Big Green Tent. At nearly 600 pages, it’s a lot bigger than most of the novels I’ve been tackling for the last year or so. Three days later, I’m not even to the halfway point.

I didn’t used to shun big books. When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I used to only buy books from the bookstore if the spines were wider than an inch. I wanted long stories so that I could immerse myself in the world the author created for me. Now that I’ve survived graduate school and have a full time job, my reading time is precious to me. I want to get through as many novels as possible. Reading a big novel means that I’m using up time I might have spent on two or three other novels. It also means there are days when I have no new reviews to post.

And yet, reading The Big Green Tent reminds me of the pleasure I used to take in big books. I’ll write more about the experience of reading it when I actually finish it. Right now all I can say is that with a big novel, the author has room to stretch. They have room to actually create a cast of thousands if they need to. With a big book, I have to change my reading style. I have to slow down and concentrate more, because there’s more I have to remember between sittings—especially with all the Russian names.

There’s a quote attributed to Sir Francis Bacon that floats around the bookish internet:

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

I’ve had this quote on my mind since I started The Big Green Tent. Ulitskaya’s novel is very much a “diligence and attention” book. It’s not bad or good. It’s just how the book is. I just have to remember that it’s okay to slow down every once in a while, to chew and digest, and not be in a rush to read all the things I want to read. I’ll never live long enough for that—not while writers keep writing and publishers keep publishing.


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