‘In Search of Lost Time’ by Marcel Proust
‘Romance of The Three Kingdoms’ by Luo Ghanzong
Not content with merely reading books that can be perceived as challenging (see http://thatdifficultfirstnovel.co.uk/books-i-havent-read/books-i-havent-read-infinite-jest-by-david-foster-wallace/ for my initial forays into the world of challenging literature), I began to desire another way to challenge myself. I was already trying to cram in a number of books within the year, as per my Goodreads challenge, but this didn’t seem enough. Suddenly, it hit me. What if I not only decided to read a certain amount of books within a year, but I included some of the biggest books ever published?
As with anything related to reading and reviewing media of any kind, it can be difficult to not cross over into pretentiousness. There can arguably be no more pretentious a statement than ‘I shall read the biggest books known to man’, because the task is designed to allow you to tell people that you are reading these books, and in the end, that you have finished these books. There is obvious literary merit to these novels, don’t get me wrong, but there is also that self-satisfied smugness that comes with mentioning ‘War and Peace’ when comparing the novels you are currently reading with a group of readers. It is the literary version of waving your hands in the air and shouting ‘look at me’.
I bought ‘War and Peace’ first, before deciding that this wasn’t enough – I even typed into Wikipedia ‘the world’s longest books’ to give myself some other alternative options. Finally, I settled on ‘In Seach of Lost Time’ and ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’. The lure of three of the longest books recorded for the sum total of around five pounds felt like the most amazing bargain ever: so many hours of entertainment for so few pence. I felt a richer man as these books found their way onto my Kindle.
What has stopped me from reading these two books, when ‘War and Peace’ is halfway finished? Would it be too obvious to suggest the length? Anytime I tried to pick the books up, the metaphorical weight of trying to tackle two novels of such length crushed me – I didn’t have time to commit my precious reading time to books that would, according to my Kindle, take me over a day to read…each. What about all the other novels I can’t read as I traipse for the next few months through worlds created by Tolstoy, as well as Proust and Ghanzong?
The only things that ‘War and Peace’ has over these two monolithic masterpieces are that I bought it first, and I started it first. This choice came from a pre-conditioned understanding of ‘War and Peace’ as this monster of literature, a view solidified over the years by cultural and social references towards the book. ‘War and Peace’ became the buzz phrase for a long book, and the punchline to any joke about the length of a piece of writing. Even though the complete volumes of ‘In Search of Lost Time’ dwarf Tolstoy’s novel, the layman or woman KNOWS how big ‘War and Peace’ is.
This brings me back to the discussion on pretentiousness. Maybe the main reason I chose to commit to ‘War and Peace’ first, considering there was nothing stopping me from making the leap directly to Proust or Ghanzong, was for the response I would receive when I told people I was reading it. Just like a joke whose punchline needs to be explained isn’t funny, the impressive nature of reading a large book is somewhat negated if you have to explain to people that that is what you are doing. Since I was guaranteed a bigger reaction to one of the three books, did I subconsciously choose it?
Of the two books, I’m more likely to read Proust than Ghanzong – once again, arguably due to the associations attached to the concept of ‘reading Proust’. Ghanzong loses out just because he had the temerity to be born other the other side of the world. Poor sod.
In the end, my desire to impress people has been my own reading albatross. Not only do I have two weighty tomes sitting there ominously, waiting to be tackled, but I also have to try and commit a chunk of my life every day to the reading a book where no end is in sight. The challenge becomes the chore. Sure, it is enjoyable – but I can only vaguely remember what happened at the start of the story and how the various characters are interlinked. It has become the reading equivalent of walking the wrong way up and escalator. You’ll get where you want to go eventually; you’ll just get there very slowly.
Serves me right for trying to show off.