The Reading Life: How to Read Big Books?

Ambrose Bierce quote

The most inappropriate place I ever pulled out a book and commenced reading was my friend’s 8th birthday party. I don’t remember this, but her mother assures me it happened. Until she told me that if I wanted to read, she could have my mother pick me up. I put away my book and joined the birthday revelries.

What possessed me to start reading in the middle of a birthday party, I have no earthly idea, though I’ve often had trouble putting a book down once I get pulled into a story.

This is one of the reasons I often shy away from reading big books (defined as those over 400 pages): I worry that all necessities will fall away until I can get myself Through. That. Book.

Compounding the problem is that I’m not a fast reader. At all. I recall taking a speed-reading class in elementary school, but sometime between then and the end of graduate school, I lost the ability to launch myself through a book. With exams and papers looming over the experience, reading had to be methodical and careful. Copious notes had to be taken in wire-rimmed notebooks, preferably using felt-tipped pens to prevent cramping of the fingers. Marginalia accumulated. Underlined passages practically outnumbered un-underlined passages. All the while, my page-per-hour rate precipitously declined.

Whether this improved my comprehension is up for debate. It is entirely possible to over-think things. In fact, I do it with alarming frequency.

Post-graduate school, I read without the specter of assessment hanging over me, and my page-per-hour rate has inched up a bit. But it’s not just about speed: How I read and what I read for have changed. Where before my reading was laced with anxiety about missing something—as if the book and I were locked in competition, and it was trying to sneak a trick or three past me—now I relax into a book and let the story take a hazy shape as I work my way through it.

As I think about it now, I see it as a trust thing—I trust that a book has something to tell me, and I trust myself to discover it. My intention as a reader is to be attentive and open to a story’s potential meaning but not to force it or try to diminish it. I don’t set out to rush through a book as if towards the finish line in a race, but I also don’t tiptoe through it worried about what I will miss.

This suggests a new approach to me in the case of those big books from which I do still shy away. Two such doorstops are Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”—which has been on my reading list for years, especially after the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky came out—and Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Homer’s “The Iliad.”

If it’s not a race, after all, then what if I begin reading them with no notion of when I will finish them? Maybe I serialize them in a 19th century redux, reading a chapter a day or even a week for as long as it takes. Maybe I read other books at the same time, because it's also not a competition. Maybe I just let myself enjoy whatever I can get through, rejecting instant gratification and choosing instead to extend the pleasure of knowing that the world between the covers will wait patiently to unfold, and I will wait patiently to unfold it.

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