Once upon a time, I met a guy at a party who had a BA from Harvard. He managed to bring it up five times that evening. I never saw him again, but I’ve often thought of him when, after some regrettable occasions, I start to brag. Vince, don’t be the Harvard guy, I tell myself.
What do I brag about? Mostly the books I’ve been reading these last five years. Permit me to brag about them for a bit. I promise I’ll not be Harvard Guy for very long.
In 2014 I decided to read Ulysses. I’d tried and failed to finish it before. But it seemed like the right time so, what the hell?, let’s go.
I discovered that the way to get through the book was to not care if I understood every word of it. Or every sentence, paragraph, page. If enough of it was sinking in, that was fine. And if the parts that confused me were not greater than the parts I enjoyed, all the better. Prior attempts saw me stall on the third chapter, the one where Stephen Dedalus is walking on Sandymount Strand all lost in his thoughts. This is where a lot of people decide, Eh, I’ll give this a go another day. It’s the chapter that really introduces the difficulty that Ulysses is famous for. To get through it, I had to surrender to the book, let it do its thing and stop harping on the necessity to get it. In doing so, I got enough.
I’ve reread Ulysses since then, this time with a guide, an experience that yielded deeper understanding and appreciation. There’s no way I was going to derive all the book has to offer in one reading. (There’s a considerable amount left for me to derive after just two readings.) Why, in those initial attempts, did I feel required to understand the entirety of the text? This is what stopped me from finishing, and loving, the book.
I tried the same approach in 2015 when I read Finnegans Wake. And it worked. What a surprise to find that the book is, despite its reputation, not only readable but hilarious. Giving in to the book—letting it do what it’s going to do and not insisting it adhere to narrow concepts of “the novel”—was, again, the only way to get through the thing. There’s a sort of humbling that went along with the experience, a submission to something above me, something I might never truly comprehend. How beautiful.
Giving in... submitting. Letting it do to me what it pleased. Having little say in the matter but going along anyway. I’m the sub in a BDSM relationship with Joyce.
Last year, I read Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. While certainly every bit the literary clusterfuck I’d always heard, the book is surprisingly accessible and, as with Joyce, funny. How do these gut-busting novels get such somber reputations? Might it be that the sheer audacity of publishing something big and strange merits the misapplication? Too bad. I’d wager people avoid these books, wrongly labeled SERIOUS LITERATURE, due to common ideas that the novels are humorless.
Not every big book needs to be so dense; they just need to be long. That’s enough to drive away readers. Of course, if a novel is too short, there’s little chance it’ll get published in this country where we, to borrow from Dorothy Parker, foolishly measure literature “with a yard-stick.” Novellas, sadly, are unmarketable. How, then, do big books make it to press more often? I suspect there’s a market for them inasmuch as people will buy a big book, even if they won’t read it. Many of us have aspirations to get through all of Proust, every short story by Clarice Lispector, the entirety of Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary, and those are just the unread doorstops currently staring at me.
Having read only Swann’s Way and the first 90 pages of Gombrowicz’s Diary, I must confess to being one of these apirational readers, the kind that’ll invest in books that may never get read. But damn if they don’t look impressive on the shelves!
This is a long way toward stating that all I wanted for Christmas was Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson. Nearly 1,700 pages separated into two handsome volumes housed in a slipcase, it’s a mammoth beast of a novel. From all reviews I’ve seen, it’s only the staggering length of the thing that’s likely to put off readers. The story and prose are both said to be engaging and clear enough, minus some digressions, which are pretty much going to occur in anything that big. But seriously… 1,700 pages. Yeah, that’s a commitment.
I crunched the numbers. If I read 33 pages a week, I’ll have the thing read in a year. 33 pages seems beyond manageable. This will allow me to read other books along the way, smaller books with more conventional plots. Books that won’t be cumbersome on the train. That stated, Anniversaries doesn’t sound like such a chore, does it? The sole requirement is that the reader agree to live with a book for a protracted time, longer than we’re used to. I’m tempted to make an argument about how tech culture and digital distractions are disenambling our willingness to form long-term relationships with art, but you’ve heard that all before. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s not true: in an era where we expect things immediately—where Uber Eats and Postmates have altered my relationship with that great noodle shop across town that won’t deliver to my apartment—it seems ironically lazy to spend so much time with one damn book. Netflix offers dozens of TV shows, so many that I feel lacking for having only watched three. We’re expected to be aware of, if not immersed in, Ozark, House of Cards, GLOW, and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina to name just the shows I’ve heard of. How ridiculous it feels to only be able to name four.
Instantly streamed and easily digested content may be doing a disservice to art, not to mention the disservice to we the consumers. Or not—I don’t pretend to know. But I suspect there’s an important reclamation of patience and focus that comes with steadily reading a book as a big as Anniversaries. I aim to find out.
Look at that—I went ahead and made a technology-is-not-so-great argument after all.
I’m between semesters, enjoying winter break. Among the few tasks I’ve been assigned these last few weeks—washing the occasional load of laundry, cooking, not rendering the apartment completely uninhabitable—taking Q., my dog, to the parlor seemed easy enough. The little guy needed only a “sanitary trim” along with the removal of some wild growing hairs from his paws. His spats, as I call them. I told as much to the woman on the phone, asking if I might just bring him in this morning for a quick visit.
“We’re booked,” she informed me.
“Even for a sanitary trim?”
“We’ll put you on the waiting list.”
Oh well. Looks like another day of drinking tea and reading and napping and binge watching The Deuce. Winter break is a motherfucker.
11:00 AM. I get a call from the parlor letting me know that a slot has opened up. Q. will have his private areas tidied up to facilitate cleaner calls to nature. But I was about to start reading some of Anniversaries. I’m on page 96, ahead of schedule, but this weekend is my last before I have to return to teaching, so I’m trying to read ahead. No problem—I’ll just being Anniversaries with me on the errand. After all, the parlor will likely need some time to get through the thicket of blonde hairs that adorn Q.’s under and back sides.
For whatever reason, I don’t bring a backpack with me, thus I’m forced to carry the first half of Anniversaries (875 pages, not counting the appendices) under my arm as I walk Q. to the car. But Q. needs to stop and smell a few trees, lift the occasional leg. Anniversaries threatens to slip and fall into the snow, a fate I cannot allow. So I carry Q. under one arm, Anniversaries under the other. I’m not sure if the dog outweighs the text.
I park on a side street near the parlor. It’s free, which is good, because I can’t deal with parking meters at the moment. Besides, I’m unable to pay for parking without shouting, “Fuck you, Richard Daley” and there are children within earshot. I put Anniversaries in a tote bag and sling it over my left shoulder. Q. is excited to be sniffing new terrain and fights me as I try to get him where he needs to go. Of course, I’m running late.
The tote slips off my shoulder once, twice, three times like Christ falling. I give up, walk Q. back to the car, leave the book-in-tote in the driver’s seat.
Q. is dropped off, much to his displeasure. I walk back to the car, grab the tote and book and head to Whole Foods, the sole place in walking distance where I can get a cup of tea and read. But I need to get some cherry tomatoes and olive oil and, well I’m here so, why not, some beer and, yeah, some dried pasta and a tub of Greek yogurt and some hummus. You know, the staples. I pay for the groceries and head to the café section of the hip grocery store, order tea. Which is when the phone rings.
“Q.’s ready for pickup!”
There’s no way I’m going to walk my dog while carrying all the groceries, so I walk back to the car and drop off the load, then fetch little Q., who’s so happy to see me, Oh my god, father, the things they did to me in there! Back home, I unpack the grocery bag while Q. gets some much needed rest. Anniversaries is in the bag. I didn’t look at a page of it during this little odyssey.
Why the hell did I bring the book with me? A voice in my head scolds me for not bringing a small book with me on the outings, one that would fit easily into my jacket pocket. But that’s not how this works: if you’re me, afflicted with the soft lunacy, you don’t always have a choice. You want to read what you want to read. You’re not in control. A big book like Anniversaries is impatient, demanding. It needs to be read, to be adored, to be taken on train rides and brought to doctor’s appointments. I could’ve brought any number of smaller books (something by Thomas Bernhard, a slim book of poems, a pocket paperback) but I didn’t. What was I thinking? Answer: I wasn’t. I let the soft lunacy do the thinking for me.