By Jessica Zafra
LITERATURE is incompatible with the information age. The digital world demands speed, accessibility, connectivity, user-friendliness, interactivity. Reading requires slowness. It asks you to disengage from “the real world,” to shut out other people and listen to the writer’s voice inside your head. Even before people started Instagramming their food the way we said grace before meals in school, this was considered antisocial and possibly schizophrenic.
What, then, is the pathology of loving doorstops? By “doorstops” I mean fat novels — War and Peace, Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, anything by Neal Stephenson — and not coffee-table books, which are more coffee table than book. The most famous of them were written in the era before TV and other distractions, to keep people from murdering each other while trapped indoors in pitiless winters (which is why the Russians rule this category). When I see a doorstop by a well-regarded author, I’m inclined to think that the subject is so riveting, they needed a thousand pages to do it justice. I am often wrong, but this has not turned me off doorstops.
Admittedly there is an element of competitive nerdiness in this devotion: “You mean you haven’t read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon?” But a compelling thousand-page book not only exercises one’s triceps, it also enables visa-free traveling while sitting still. You are an orphan menaced by an escaped convict in a mist-shrouded graveyard. You are a sailor on a ship piloted by a madman obsessed with a whale. You are a little person with hairy feet who must destroy a ring of pure evil. You get to be someone else. You are not bound by time and space. The longer the book, the longer your vacation from your own life. It’s not that your life is so terrible you must escape from it, but that life feels so much more comfortable after your mental trips. Are you depressed? Read Crime and Punishment, your life will seem fabulous in comparison. At the very least, the sense of achievement at having finished it, plus the relief of leaving Raskolnikov’s tormented planet behind, should elevate your mood.
Not every doorstop can be climbed. I abandoned Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Haruki Murakami’s IQ84 (along with every other Murakami, though I began enthusiastically). Having read and admired the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, I do not feel compelled to pick up the succeeding volumes right now. George Eliot I have not managed to crack, although being forced to read Silas Marner in high school may have something to do with that. It does not mean that these books are bad, just that it is not the right time for them and me. Listen, if three text messages can be the basis of a relationship, what about 300,000 words?
I should point out that my main standard for judging a book is the pleasure I get from reading it. This means I am not a serious critic. Also, I don’t judge a book by its cover, but cover design is certainly a factor in my book selection. I always look for NYRB Classics not only because they rescue wonderful authors from obscurity and general amnesia (“You mean you haven’t read Gregor von Rezzori, Curzio Malaparte, and Stefan Zweig?”), but because their books look beautiful lined up on my shelves.
Events in the real world also determine my choices. While watching the film Sicario my first thought, after “Benicio del Toro looks like Brad Pitt’s big brother who hasn’t slept in 20 years,” was “I have to finish 2666.” I remember enjoying Roberto Bolano’s doorstop but putting it aside for some reason. Every year I take another whack at Proust. One has to train for the ascent on In Search of Lost Time. In past attempts I was defeated by the part about the madeleines: “Eat the blasted cake and get on with it!” This year I had barely cracked the first volume open when I heard the news of the Paris attacks. Now I have to finish Swann’s Way, as my rebuke to the terrorists. I am happy to report that I have gotten past the madeleines and am now in the section about the maid who was so devoted to her employer, she would crawl out of her sickbed rather than allow anyone else to serve her.
My fondness for doorstops is now inversely proportional to my immersion in pop culture.
I remember the exact moment I realized that I no longer understood the audience. A good memory is one of the by-products of reading — neurons stretch to accommodate the many characters in Dickens, the begats in the Old Testament, etc. (Digression is a by-product of reading doorstops — taking detours before getting to the point.) Seven years ago, a friend invited me to give a talk to the new hires at her office. While reminding the audience not to discuss office matters in their Facebook accounts, I noted, as an aside, the ridiculousness of tweeting, “I’m having a Coke at 7-11!” Who cares, I asked, foolishly. Life is boring enough without transmitting its most trivial details to the general public. There are better uses for technology. Someone raised their hand. “What’s wrong with tweeting my snack? We like sharing these little details.” The audience agreed.
It was like being hit over the head with the dictum that the medium is the message. My newfound irrelevance was mixed with the consolation of knowing that I would no longer be called upon to explain the mind-set of the youth. (It’s not as if I ever comprehended it.) I had officially joined the old people who read fat books with five-syllable words on, like, paper — novels that do not involve angst-ridden vampires, wizard schools, dystopian contests, or teens afflicted with cancer. Pass me the latest translation of Dostoevsky by Pevear and Volokhonsky. (Why do I get excited about new translations when I know zero Russian and cannot judge their accuracy? I don’t know.)