Boot Camp for Big Books #1
Article Series Introduction
There comes a point in your adult life where all those disgusting foods your parents ate — blue cheese, olives, red wine, broccoli — suddenly begin to appeal. Your palate develops and you are enriched by sharpness, saltiness and even appreciate the nourishment of good and wholesome food. And of course, your body reaps the longer term health benefits. So what of the adults who never grow out of pizza and takeaway, or the I-only-eat-white-food indulgences from their childhood? Do they know or care what they are missing? Sometimes it’s all too hard.
In this proposed series of articles I will provide strategies and tips for people who would like to read some of the ‘bigger’ books but are too intimidated to know where or how to start. As my title suggests, I don’t recommend starting cold. You could get lucky and pick a book that works for you right off the bat, but you might also find yourself buried alive in the first chapter of Les Miserables, never to emerge sane again. I will suggest some ways to increase your chance of success. That includes how to pick the right book for you, but also how to get the most enjoyment out of your time investment. Because one of the scariest things about these books is the chunk of life it will take to read them, right?
In a period of unemployment in my late twenties, I decided to gather up all the books off my shelves I hadn’t read and created a program of reading to ‘clean them up’. I had the time, and didn’t have the money to be buying more. I was a bit underwhelmed at the motley crew that came together. This was at a time when my reading was dominated by Robert Ludlum, Jeffrey Archer, loads of chick lit, novelty books and a few classics. I decided it was time I got myself edumacated. I wanted to join the conversation about the classics, but you can’t have a view if you haven’t read them. But the thought of diving straight into War and Peace was stultifying. I would have to work my way up slowly.
Perhaps it’s time to take a step back. What exactly makes a book seem unapproachable? Based on what I read in my online book groups I’d say:
2. A foreign culture/translation
3. Number of characters and plotlines
4. Historical distance
When picking your first boot camp book, you might want to consider how these things affect your choice or thoughts on a book.
As we know with Harry Potter, Ken Follett and some fantasy series, length isn’t really relevant once you are sucked in. Likewise the number of characters and plots to keep track of — the difficulty is more if you aren’t drawn in enough and keep putting the book down for long periods you literally lose the plot and give up.
Historical distance can spice up a book, but it can also create a comprehension gap. One of the (many) complaints about James Joyce’s Ulysses, published 1920, is its constant reference to contemporary events in Ireland. No problem for many readers when it first came out, but requiring lots of footnoting for us now 100 years on. Think of all the footnotes novels from the last thirty years will need after yet another century has passed: what’s a floppy disk…?
A foreign culture and/or translation can be an attraction or a deterrent. I cannot stress enough the importance of a good translation. Imagine investing nine months in struggling through Dante’s The Divine Comedy only to find there was a far more readable/contemporary translation by someone else? Google research and essays on these books. Writers often refer to preferred translations, and the newest are not always the best or what will suit you personally.
And do get a little help from your friends. Read essays by people who love reading these books and who can give you insights into how to enter the woods and recognise the trees. Writers such as Jane Smiley (13 Ways of Looking at the Novel — where she gives you a run down of her top 101 books) and Francine Prose (Reading Like a Writer and What to Read and Why) are very good starting points and will see you adding to your to-read list in no time.
And finally, reputation can scare people off before they’ve even learnt much about the book for themselves, but here’s the truth: once you conquer a Big Book and discover that at the heart of it is just a Big Story with memorable characters, all that criticising and carping starts to fade away and you realise you have your own opinions now and they are just as valid. We all bring our unique past and experience to a book, so every person will get something different. Imagine how many versions of Great Expectations are out there in people’s heads? The reason these books are Big and have endured is because they have offered so much to so many new generations such that the discussion and argument is constantly refreshed.
The great thing about conquering one mountain peak is that you will be able to see other distant mountains you want to attempt as well, and having achieved one, the others will seem more possible. So here’s where my tips and strategies come in.
Like most people, I don’t have time to waste on the wrong book. My recommended boot camp steps vary depending on the book, but in my articles on specific titles I will talk about:
1. Picking the right translation
3. ‘Lesser’ books by the same author
4. Biographies or other information about the author
5. Related fictional books
6. Essays and analyses
7. Literal how-to-read-X books
8. Picking editions with good notes and/or introductions
Please look out for my first planned article in this series where I tackle one of the biggest books of all, the book that has become a bye-word for long and impossible: Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.