When I was browsing the summer reading columns this year a pattern began to emerge. The novel that every book section said not to take away on holiday was the doorstoppingly solid ‘A Suitable Boy’ by Vikram Seth. Any readers who attempted to get through that on holiday were apparently lunatics, destined to long days of reading failure. Strange, I thought, as I consider ‘A Suitable Boy’ accessible, lively and easy to follow, once you pin down exactly how the large cast of characters relates to each other. I couldn’t understand the prejudice against this book until I noticed a similarity, none of them had ever finished the book. So what made them describe ‘A Suitable Boy’ as a book too scary for summer reading? Its massive size seemed to be all they had to base the book’s bad reputation on.
Starting a big book seems like a big decision. A book over 500 pages could take up a large chunk of your reading life when there are already so many books to fit into your limited life span. Carrying it on the train won’t be easy. It’s not a book you can balance if you want to read in the bath. For me the biggest bar to beginning a massive paperback is my fear that the book will be terrible but once I’ve started it I will feel obliged to finish it. The book will languish beside my bed, reproaching me and occasionally striking out at my toes as I walk past it. I will spend miserable weeks in the company of its dull and stupid characters, constantly distracted by all the other books slotted into my bookcase.
It’s all psychological of course. I could unsuspectingly open an awful thin or medium sized book. I could get stuck in its pages as my brain refuses to go any further, pleading mental cruelty. I could still get ‘book guilt’ and be unable to throw the badly written pages at the wall. However it doesn’t seem as if this would cost me as much as being caught in a big, bad book. Stop me if I sound crazy but half finished, bigger books look as if they are mocking me. Bookmarks left half way through gigantic novels taunt me, telling me I just don’t have the mental stamina to climb this intellectual mountain. Although I know not all books that are enormous can be works of intricate genius gymnastics they get some kind of special status in my brain that tells me they must be worth persevering with even when I can clearly see that they aren’t. Surely someone couldn’t write that many pages without including one sentence spectacular enough to silence the whole world.
Despite a fear of what large books could do to my life (and apparently my sanity) I continue to be unhealthily attracted to them. I only have to see a book bigger than my head, written about a vaguely interesting subject and it is dropped into my basket then dragged home to wait on my shelves (due to the fear) and occasionally mock me with my inferiority. “You haven’t read Anna Karenina yet? Or Until I Find You? There’s dust gathering on them! What a disgrace.”. As you can see now the books can talk, the big book madness is getting worse.
There is only one way for me to get past this fear of the big book and this is to set aside chunks of a weekend and choose from the obese stack of books over 500 pages. As my hand reaches out towards their reassuring plumpness and shiny covers I may still be unsure that I’m about to do the right thing, commit weeks to the right book, but I try to use my previous good experiences with books designed as cudgels to fight the fear. I often wonder if I didn’t have those good memories if I would be brave enough to sit down with books like ‘A Suitable Boy’ in my spare time, despite all the critics telling me not to try. How much poorer would my life be without having read this and other special books, clothed in thick layers. How many other readers are kept from attempting humongous books like this because they know their size has scared David Baddiel away?
So to encourage you on to bigger things here is are some big books I’ve read and had purely positive times with.
A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth:
A massive family saga full of romance, politics, religion and upheaval. It is,much more substantial than many family stories following the politics and religious conflicts of India and Pakistan but is still full of comedy and love. The large cast of characters contains someone for every reader to route for. The contents page forms a big rhyming poem outlining the story, which is an interesting extra touch.
Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts:
Gregory David Roberts really did escape from prison, journey to India, live in slums and work for gang leaders but this book reads as smoothly and poetically as a novel. It’s moving, involving and just couldn’t have been done justice in a smaller amount of words.
The Far Pavillions – MM Kaye:
A historical novel this time focusing on India during the time of British occupation. Ash is a remarkable character who embodies both of the dominate religions within his country but is also able to gain the respect of the British officers in the army. This novel is as much about serious politics and history as it is about romance but never feels over burdened and is full of constant adventure.
David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
This is Dickens most autobiographical novel. It’s a straight forward biography of young David who goes from the ousted step-son to a prosperous young man at the heart of a family. Although you may be tempted to invent a time machine and use this book to hit Dickens after the ‘fortunate’ death of Dora ‘David Copperfield’ is better reading material than weaponry. This is the perfect book for anyone who feels characters are the most important element of fiction as much of it is a detailed, entertaining character sketch of David and those around him.
The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexander Dumas
Imprisoned unjustly and torn away from the love of his life Edmand Dante swears revenge. Once escaped from prison he assumes a new identity and sets out to destroy those who conspired to incarcerate him. He also does some good along the way and Dumas makes sure we learn many fascinating things along the way. Most editions have rather small print but if you can immerse yourself in Dante’s mind you will find it worthwhile.