We’ve forgotten how to read long novels – and we’ll pay the price10/05/2022
2022 is a big year for the birthdays of big books. In February we observed the 100th anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses. In November it will be a century since the death of Marcel Proust, author of the gargantuan novel sequence first translated into English as Remembrance of Things Past, and now better known as In Search of Lost Time.
Are the big books of Proust and Joyce underrated? Obviously not. They’re rated as masterpieces by most people who’ve read them. But how many people have? Considering their quality, both books are gravely under-read.
In fact, we seem to be losing our patience for long novels in general. We spend so much of each day grazing on mental junk food that our appetite for serious literary nutrition is shrinking. That’s why I’m making a pitch here for Great Big Books in general – for those literary whoppers that make unashamedly large claims on our time and attention.
It’s an unfashionable pitch, I know. These days we’re so pressed for time that Netflix offers us the option of mainlining its content at 1.5 times the normal speed, as if 90 minutes is now considered an unreasonable amount of time to spend watching a 90-minute movie.
Meanwhile, online magazines have started warning us how many minutes each story on their home page will take to read. The times specified are always piddling. Four minutes. Six minutes. Maybe 10 if the story’s really earth-shaking. The implication is clear: reading is a luxury we can barely afford. The sooner a writer gets out of our hair, the better.
But if we don’t want writers in our hair, they’ll never get into our heads. Day by day, online content providers are whittling down our attention spans. One way to resist this assault on our mental infrastructure is to lay aside our devices and slow-read a brazenly time-consuming work of fiction. I’m not saying it has to be by Proust or Joyce. It can be by anyone, as long as it’s made of paper, lasts for at least 500 pages, and won’t emit some kind of buzz or chirp or chime every 30 seconds.
The stakes may be higher than we think. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), psychologist Steven Pinker set out to explain why violence has declined so markedly over the course of human history.
The trend was accelerated by the rise of literacy and novel-reading in the 18th century, Pinker believed. Reading fiction civilises us, he argued; it takes us beyond our “parochial vantage points”, expanding our “circle of empathy” by “seducing [us] into thinking and feeling like people very different from [ourselves]”.
If reading makes us less self-centred and nasty, does our waning patience for books explain why we now spend so much time having trivial online squabbles? It seems possible.
And if novels widen the scope of our empathy, do longer novels deepen and improve its quality? I’d say yes. There’s no fictional character we know better than Leopold Bloom, the hero of Ulysses. We know all his private thoughts and icky secrets. But we forgive Bloom, just as we forgive any real human being we fully know and love. Ulysses earned Joyce a reputation as a dirty writer. Really, he was a fearlessly honest one.
So was Proust, whose big novel was really a veiled autobiography. When Proust died, his niece was grief-stricken. A wise man consoled her by saying, “Marcel Proust? Nobody is less dead than he.” The observation still rings true. Proust has been dead for 99.8 years. But between the covers of his book, his vast intelligence lives on.
Proust penned one of the great literary whoppers of our time. Credit:Hulton Archive
With any long book, the question of skipping arises. I say skip away. The best pages of Ulysses will stay with you forever, but some parts positively demand to be skipped. Proust has his tedious moments too, as even his staunchest fans admit. Somerset Maugham found parts of Proust “exquisitely boring” but said he would “sooner be bored by Proust than amused by anyone else”.
Interestingly, some of the best-loved long novels of recent years have been written for children. At the height of the Harry Potter craze, J. K. Rowling published the 750-page Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. My nephew, who was 10 at the time, immersed himself in that brick-thick hardback for days, viewing its extreme length not as a bummer but a bonus.
Somewhere between youth and middle age, our enthusiasm for chunky novels recedes. There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Cloudstreet, which runs to 500 pages, is routinely hailed as Australia’s favourite novel. Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy proved that mammoth novel sequences can still be smash hits.
Last year Jonathan Franzen published the 700-page Crossroads, the first instalment of a projected trilogy about modern America. After finishing that book, I wanted to start the sequel straight away, until I recalled that it doesn’t exist yet and will have to be patiently waited for.
It was an unfamiliar feeling. We’re so used to bingeing things that we seem to have forgotten what the word “binge” means. Bingeing isn’t something you should want to do as a way of life. At the end of a binge, you feel unhealthy. At the end of a great book, you feel nourished and improved. Like all the best human transactions, serious reading asks a lot of you, but delivers far more in return.
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