Reading Long Books


This seems to be the summer of long books for me. Or a year, maybe. It started early this year when I read Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Then, I read The Decameron by Giovanni Boccacio and The Once and Future King by T.H. White in June, and now I’ve finished Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady.  All of these are close to, or above 700 pages long. It made me think about long books in general and I felt they deserve a post of their own.

Long books demand a certain level of commitment, and that’s why they are often put aside – it’s what happened to me with The Portrait of a Lady. It’s also easier to find a reason to stop reading a long book if you don’t like it right at the beginning – it’s long, you don’t have the time to waste on it. But sometimes, you read a long book in a heartbeat, without event noticing its length. This happened to me with The Once and Future King and The Decameron. I can’t really say which one I liked more because they are completely different and from a different time period. The Decameron is in a way a collection of short stories so the reading experience is a bit different from reading a novel. I loved it for what it is – a view into the medieval world. I loved The Once and Future King for what it was as well, and I’ve already talked a lot about it. (Review 1Review 2) Now, the other two books are another story.

I must admit, and it saddens me to do it, that I didn’t really enjoy Wolf Hall. I was certain I was going to love it, but it left me disappointed. I felt its length while I was reading it and towards the end I just wanted it finished. The style didn’t suit me. I mostly don’t have a problem with slower reads (I remember when I read Murakami’s 1Q84 – another long book – and was surprised to learn that a lot of people found it slow because I read it quite quickly and thoroughly enjoyed it) but I just couldn’t get into this book. I felt detached from the character(s) and from the story itself. A similar thing happened with The Portrait of a Lady, though I liked it much more than Wolf Hall. In this case, I could relate to the characters. It kept me interested, but at points the descriptive style was too overbearing. I know, the Victorian style is like that, but I’ve read a lot of Victorian novels and I didn’t find them as slow as this one; some of them even made me cry which is not that easy to achieve. It’s an interesting portrayal of human psyche and I appreciate it for that, but it didn’t completely suit me. Why? It’s hard to say, and it’s a question that is almost impossible to answer. It’s hard to explain exactly why something “works” for you. The story isn’t enough, it has to be presented in a way that captures you. And sometimes, I think it’s important to read a book at a right time, a period in your life when it can speak to you best. In a way, you have to find a piece of you in the book you’re reading, even if you didn’t know that piece existed at all – be it your feelings, your interests, experiences you had or the ones you wish for, or even your fears. There’s certainly more to consider, but the truth is – once everything aligns, the number of pages doesn’t matter at all.

What is it that makes a book drag you into a completely different world and forget about the time spent reading it? Well, if any of you have some answers, I’d be glad to hear them.