I wasn’t going to tell you about this, because I was afraid you might hold me to it. I think I harboured secret intentions to give up a few hundred pages in. I don’t have a very good record with Big Books. I only made it halfway through Les Miserables, even though I thought it was wonderful. Last time I attempted War and Peace three years ago, my bookmark only made it to page 208.
I don’t even know why I impulsively decided to start last week. I was actually suffering the dreaded False Start disease in my reading: pulling books off my shelf, reading a few chapters and then having no desire to go on. Five books are still sitting discarded by my bed. And so what was my answer to this disease? An incredibly stupid one: pull out the biggest book on my shelf, so big it’s in two volumes. Fourteen hundred pages in total. I’m up to page 142.
If I’m going to finish War and Peace I’m going to have to train my mind. The marathon book requires that I keep my mind immersed in the moment, in the experience. As soon as I start calculating how many pages I’ve got left, I’m a goner, I may as well pull out.
Reading in general and the marathon book in particular require that I don’t treat the book like a marathon. Or a mountain. If the book’s a notch to add to my belt, an achievement to brag about, I’m reading it for the wrong reason.
This is what concerns me: how much of War and Peace am I going to remember? Am I going to carry some remnant, some impression of it in my head for the rest of my days? Or is too huge to leave a trace? Will it be like trying to hold a whole world in my head? Because I only read Anna Karenina six years ago, and all I can remember of that is that she throws herself under a train at the end. (Sorry to spoil it, if you’ve just invested months of your life getting near to that point.) Was reading it a waste, then?
Well, not entirely. Most of the point is in the journey itself, the experience of reading it. It would be wonderful to retain more of the book itself, but I’ll have to face the fact that I may not.
(Which brings to mind another possible approach to reading: I might start re-reading a lot more until more novels have lodged themselves in my mind, until I have absorbed their structure, their feel, their characters. Because the few novels I have read over and over again – the Tripods, The Collector, The Catcher in the Rye, Moon Palace – are the most rewarding, are the ones I can intepret life through. I have this hunch that it would be far better to know a handful of books intimately than to whiz through a hundred in a year. What do you think?)
I’ll finish with Percy Lubbock’s beautiful description of the attempt of the reader to hold the whole book in his or her mind:
To grasp the shadowy and fantasmal form of a book, to hold it fast, to turn it over and survey it at leisure – that is the effort of a critic of books and it is perpetually defeated. Nothing, no power, will keep a book steady and motionless before us, so that we may have time to examine its shape and design. As quickly as we read, it melts and shifts in the memory; even at the moment when the last page is turned, a great part of the book, its finer detail, is already vague and doubtful. A little later, after a few days or months, how much is really left of it? A cluster of impressions, some clear points emerging from a mist of uncertainty, this is all we can hope to possess, generally speaking, in the name of a book. The experience of reading it has left something behind, and these relics we call by the book’s name; but how can they be considered to give us the material for judging and appraising the book?
– The Craft of Fiction, p. 1