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The Bookshelf: Big Books Still Ahead

Perhaps what unites the books that I’ve dragged my feet about reading is that they are Big Books, long and serious works of great literary merit. These require an investment of one’s time and energy, representing a reader’s marathon. There is no training for these marathons, of course. One must simply plunge in.

In my October column, I considered “The Pleasures of Rereading,” and offered some authors and books I consider old friends worth revisiting. This month, as promised, I want to talk about books I have around my house that reproach me every time I notice them, because I have yet to read them. I have the books because I want to read them, of course, or perhaps because the high opinion of others whom I respect makes me think I should. I will mostly discuss literature here; the number of works of philosophy and history that still await me on my own shelves is embarrassing for an academic in my field. But this column will be embarrassing enough—a confession that as I approach my seventh decade as a reader, there are many notable works of literature whose acquaintance I have yet to make, though I own them already. I should look on the bright side: see what greatness still awaits me!

Why, for instance, have I not yet read Anna Karenina? I had the opportunity to read it in college long ago, and I blew it—I dropped the course in which it was required reading. I still haven’t got around to it, but I will, notwithstanding the manifest untruth of Tolstoy’s opening line: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (And I will be sure to read the Constance Garnett translation, not the one lately fashionable.)

Perhaps what unites the books that I’ve dragged my feet about reading is that they are Big Books, long and serious works of great literary merit. These require an investment of one’s time and energy, representing a reader’s marathon—unlike, say, a quick sprint through another short and hilarious novel by P.G. Wodehouse (who is, in his own way, a truly great writer, and I’m far from finishing his oeuvre of more than 90 volumes). There is no training for these marathons, of course. One must simply plunge in. Perhaps I hesitate because I normally read these kinds of books late in the evening, before bed—which threatens to extend the marathon over many weeks. Or maybe I’m afraid I won’t like some of them once I’ve started, and I wonder whether that wouldn’t be a judgment on me rather than on the books. Other readers may feel the same, but we really shouldn’t. Even the greatest books are not to everyone’s liking, and legitimately so.

After more than 100 pages, for instance, I simply gave up years ago on Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which struck me as drearily pedantic. Yet because one of my professors had highly praised another of Mann’s works, the massive biblical tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers, I plan to give that one a go one of these days. Maybe I’ll find that Thomas is just not the Mann for me, though I did enjoy his lesser-known brother Heinrich’s book Young Henry of Navarre, and plan to read its even larger sequel, Henry, King of France, both about the founder of the modern Bourbon dynasty.

Another work I started long ago and didn’t finish—but want to, in this case—is Anthony Powell’s huge Dance to the Music of Time, which Evelyn Waugh said was “more realistic” and “much funnier” than Proust. Powell’s most ambitious work is actually a cycle of twelve short novels spanning the middle of the twentieth century in Britain, collected into four large volumes called “First Movement,” “Second Movement,” and so on. I console myself that I did finish the first novel in the cycle, A Question of Upbringing—just eleven more to go!—but I think I shall have to start over. I recall enjoying what I read but not, alas, what happened.

Also in the “my bookmark is still where I left off” category is James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, often considered the finest contemporaneous biography ever written. A dozen years ago I got well into the Life of the inimitable Dr. Johnson, indeed about 150 pages in, but then stopped for some reason, and that was only 12 percent of the way! I can’t quite decide whether to start again from the beginning. But no, an abridged edition is not for me; I plan to succeed or fail in a big way.

Abridgment is the bane of the devoted reader. I’m told that Victor Hugo larded Les Miserables with page after page of material that does little or nothing to advance the essential story, yet I still feel it would be an injustice to a great author to read a version reflecting someone else’s meddlesome judgment about what stays in and what is cut. So when I get to Hugo, it’s the whole book for me.

Perhaps if Hugo had written his magnum opus in the form of a series of shorter connected novels making up the whole, no one would think of abridgment. It hasn’t been done, to my knowledge, to Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time cycle. And it seems not to have been done to another work many friends have recommended to me, Sigrid Undset’s trilogy collectively titled Kristin Lavransdatter, the novels set in fourteenth-century Norway that earned their author the Nobel Prize for Literature.

And as long as I’m thinking big, I’d like to tackle a set of books I inherited from my parents, who enjoyed them greatly: Anthony Trollope’s six “Palliser” novels, a wry commentary on nineteenth-century British political and social life that begins with Can You Forgive Her?  All 2,400 pages or so await me, so I’d better not put it off too long. And if I’m tackling the great Victorian novelists, large unread books also await me on my own shelves by Dickens, Eliot, Hardy . . .

See you next month. I have some reading to do!

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