The stereotypical hopeful-optimistic comment is that we live in an age of marvels. Metal tablets that can play Mozart and show you a real-time picture of the street, the very house, where you were born; instruments the size of playing cards that can hold every song ever written; cell phones that can contain more information than was ever stored in the Library of Alexandria. The osmosis of these marvels is so fast it’s almost frightening – a 5-year-old presented with an iPad will figure it out five times as fast as will a 30-year-old with a PhD – and their prevalence equally so: people don’t just read the news – they go to YouTube to see it, happening in real time. The same commentators who call all this an age of marvels also necessarily praise the key that unlocks that age: the explosive increase in the average person’s ability to ‘multi-task.’ Even as recently as twenty years ago, the accepted wisdom of all societies was that if you tried to do two things at the same time, you’d end up half-doing both of them poorly. “One thing at a time” used to be a proverbial admonition, whereas today it’s more likely to mark a person as mentally handicapped – it would be tantamount to admitting an almost embarrassing mental deficiency.
In fact, the ability to pay attention has indeed degraded drastically in the last twenty-five years or so, but not because of the rise of some silent-but-deadly medical condition. The ability to pay attention – to concentrate on doing one thing for an hour or more – is a muscle: the vast majority of humans need to exercise it steadily in order to work it into sufficient shape to get anything real accomplished beyond fits-and-spurts. But the process of that steady exercise is deeply unpleasant at first, and in the last few decades the United States has seen the rise of an entire demographic that brusquely, arrogantly demands that nothing at all, nothing in the entire course of life, be deeply unpleasant (the corresponding point that this makes that demographic deeply unpleasant need hardly be made). So if little Jennifer (male) or Chuck (female) have the slightest bit of trouble bearing down on a long book-chapter or a tedious math problem, they must have a disorder, and their psychiatrist must be brow-beaten into prescribing a sedative, which the children themselves must never stop taking.
One result of this has been a bumper-crop of young people in their late teens and early twenties who have the mental concentration level of five-year-olds. They can’t make elaborate points, for they can’t reason in any prolonged, deliberate sense; they can’t converse intelligently for more than a few seconds at a time, for they lack the concentration necessary to see the conversation’s longer rhythms; they can’t introspect in any way, for any kind of distraction consumes them completely. So: no quiet afternoons in museums, no classical symphonies, no learning foreign languages, no chess, no novel-writing, no carefully considered opinions, no investment in anything. For thousands and thousands of young people, then, a life almost entirely consisting of video games, ATMs, and TV.
Also on the list of unavailable things? Nice long books (adult books, of course – I’m not talking about the almost stutteringly simple the children’s books that have, tellingly, become adult bestsellers in recent years). Bookish grown-ups might still enjoy long works like And Members of the Club or Pillars of the Earth, but twenty-somethings not only don’t read them but can’t – they lack the powers of concentration necessary to pay attention over the course of so many pages, and the tiny, five-year-old bursts of concentration they can muster aren’t nearly enough – it would take them two years to read a thousand-page book, and they know it, so they don’t even think about attempting it. Isolated bookworms and demographic momentum keep those books coming (some very big ones made my ‘Best Of’ list last year, for instance), but in thirty years they’ll be as dead as the dodo. The iPhone generation won’t even recognize what they are.
And of course that’s a shame. As I can attest more passionately even than most readers, there’s a peculiar magic that happens over the course of a long book that simply doesn’t happen at shorter lengths – there’s an extra dimension of commonality with the author, the palpable sense of living through this long work with its creator. And if that creator is talented (if, in other words, the long book in question isn’t Under the Dome), they’ll make conscious use of that sense.
Long books are a special, rarefied sub-division of the book world. That world is generally the most democratic and inviting: anybody who knows how to read can enter it and start having fun. No matter how weak a reader you are, there are countless books written to please you. But then there’s that sub-division, that K2 peak that requires not only the best guides and equipment but also careful acclimitization in stages. Even tried and tested book-readers don’t always feel natural in those rarefied precincts, but at least they have the basic equipment. Young people who’ve been medicated out of their ability to concentrate have no chance at all of scaling these heights, and that’s depressing. Some of literature’s most sublime pleasures are only available well above the tree-line. These six, for instance:
The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu – this magnificent Japanese epic from over a thousand years ago is one of the first true novels – and one of the longest. It recounts the adventures and loves of its handsome, shining prince, Genji, and the parallel adventures of the court all around him. Lady Murasaki wrote at the height of the Heian period’s literary refinement, and one of the most enjoyable elements of her book is the uncanny way she uses the very length of her text to simulate the passage of time. Naturally, nowhere is this more true than in the book’s final chapter, Ukifune (“The Bridge of Dreams” chapter from Arthur Waley’s 1921-1933 translation, available as a pleasingly plump paperback from Tuttle). In it, two handsome young men – Kaoru and Niou – are vying for the affections of the pretty but feckless Ukifune (we never learn her real name, but the nickname, signifying a boat drifting on the current, suits her just fine), sighing and skulking in a way Genji readers will find very familiar:
He felt his way round to the front of the building. Even here there did not seem to be a soul astir. But at one of the windows he presently noticed a very dim light and could hear a faint hum of whispered conversation. “They don’t seem to have gone to bed yet,” he reported to Niou. “You’d better get through the hedge where I did,” and he led Niou to the lighted window. The shutters were fastened, and the light that Michisada had observed came through a fault in the wood. Niou raised himself gently onto a ledge and got as close as possible to the hole. A bamboo blind rustled as he did so, and startled him so much that he nearly lost his hold.
That last little detail – a nervous young man being startled by nothing, you can easily picture it in your mind – is priceless, as is the sad put palpable sense in “Ukifune” that the story of Genji really is ongoing, that the older generation whose lives and loves we’ve followed for a thousand pages have begun to yield to a new generation – but that the lives and loves go on. The fact that Tale of Genji doesn’t end so much as simply stop is will prompt a sad smile from readers who’ve persevered this long: they’ll realize they wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton – This bottomless compendium of human vice, folly, and madness was first published in 1621 and despite being some 500 close-packed pages, it became vigorous seller in Burton’s day, sent back to the publisher for reprinting five times in its author’s lifetime. In these pages, Burton seeks nothing less than to create a bestiary of the human heart, and readers who can’t concentrate will be barred from the soaring prose of the book’s end, when Burton comes as close as he can to summarizing the brunt of emotionality. “some will hear good counsel,” he writes, and “some will not; some desire help, some reject all, and will not be eased.” And ultimately, after trekking through every kind of obsession and passion in the playbook, our author increasingly lets a slight silver glint of tolerance shine through:
If a man put desperate hands upon himself by occasion of madness or melancholy, if he have given testimony before of his regeneration, in regard he doth this not so much out of his will as ex vi morbi [on account of his disease], we must make the best construction of it, as Turks do, that think all fools and madmen go directly to heaven.
(Which is sweet enough, although the very end of The Anatomy of Melancholy is a jungle of end-notes in Latin and can be skipped by all but the most obsessive readers…)
The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith – This enormous book (1208 pages in my handy Bantam edition) broke all kinds of literary and economic ground when it was published in 1776 (one Oxford don was frustrated by the nagging memory of some other significant event that took place that year) by attempting to anatomize the entirety of a human economy. It succeeds brilliantly, not only through an unblinking clarity of focus but also through the less well-recognized boon of gorgeous prose. Smith covers virtually every aspect of the way people pay other people for everything conceivable, and the rules of that paying, and description after (historically invaluable) description of the precise manners and customs of that paying. Hardly any occupation is overlooked – hell, even lowly college teachers get a mention:
In some universities the salary makes but a part, and frequently but a small part of the emoluments of the teacher, of which the greater part arises from the honoraries or fees of his pupils. The necessity of application, though always more or less diminished, is not in this case entirely taken away. Reputation in his profession is still of some importance to him, and he still has some dependency upon the affection, gratitude, and favourable report of those who have attended upon his instructions; and these favourable sentiments he is likely to gain in now way so well as by deserving them, that is, by the abilities and diligence with which he discharges every part of his duty.
But as good as Smith is at every point, his book only gains its real power as his portrait becomes more or less complete, in the final chapters. Brain-addled skimmers looking only for a mention of the ‘invisible hand’ will come away wondering what all the fuss is about, much to their own detriment.
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West – World War II was swift approaching (indeed, violence was already almost everywhere) when West finished this enormous (1150 pages in my old Penguin paperback) classic, and it’s only in the closing pages that West really begins distilling the bitter lessons her travels through Yugoslavia had taught her, one of which was a on-the-ground understanding of ethnic hatred:
But in Yugoslavia I saw with my own eyes the German hatred of the Slavs: as a scar on the Slav peoples, in the chattering distraction of Croatia, and the lacerated moral beauty of Bosnia; as an abscess on a German soul, when Gerda looked on the seven thousand French graves at Bitolj and wounded a husband who had treated her with infinite tenderness by saying sourly, “To think of all those people giving their lives for a lot of Slavs”; as a womb swollen with murder, in the German war memorial at Bitolj. For the first time I knew the quality of the parties to this feud.
If cumulative power is a deciding characteristic of Smith’s book, it’s immensely more so in West’s, in part because despite its enormous subsequent expansion, this book originally began life as a simple travelogue, and time’s passage is a vital, active ingredient in all good travelogues. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a journey (with all due respect to Apsley Cherry-Garrard, it’s in fact the worst journey in the world), so it’s sad to think there will now be so many readers who are forced to turn back before the end of the road.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – this sprawling 2004 fantasy novel, set in 1806 but in a slightly different reality than the one found in the history books, centers around the battle of wills (and spells) between fastidious old adept Mr. Norrell and hot-shot newcomer-wizard Jonathan Strange, and although every page of the book is a pure delight, readers without sufficient wherewithal will never reach the climactic concluding chapters with their hilarious, adorable footnotes, like:
It is all very well in fairy-tales to ask, “Who is the fairest of them all?” But in reality no magic, fairy or human, could ever be persuaded to answer such an imprecise question.
St. Anthony of Padua: Several of his miracles involve preserving from rain congregations to whom he was preaching, or maid-servants with whom he was friendly. He also helps people find things they have lost.
A surprising number of kings and princes of Faerie have been human … Faeries are, by and large, irredeemably indolent. Though they are fond of high rank, honours and riches, they detest the hard work of government.
The Great War for Civilisation by Robert Fisk – This passionate, impressionistic doorstop about the contemporary Middle East can be every bit as exhausting as a marathon – and every bit as glorious. It shares a great deal in common with Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, for although Fisk isn’t as good a prose stylist as West (who is?), he’s every bit as passionate and human, every bit as open to impression, and most importantly, every bit as willing to read human immediacy into the history he’s seeing made all around him in his travels. He’s even willing to grant that human immediacy to figures other writers tend to treat as cardboard villains – like Saddam Hussein, hiding in a subterranean locker as U.S. troops hunt for him:
What did Saddam discover here in the last days? Peace of mind after the years of madness and barbarity? A place to reflect on his awesome sins, how he took his country from prosperity, through foreign invasion and isolation and years of torture and suppression into a world of humiliation and occupation? The birds must have sung in the evening, the palm fronds above him must have clustered against each other in the night. But then there must have been the fear, the constant knowledge that betrayal was only an orchard away. It must have been cold in that hole. And no colder than when the hands of Washington-the-all-Powerful reached out across oceans and continents and came to rest on that odd-looking pot plant and hauled the would-be Caliph from his tiny cell.
Readers interested in this type of book but put off by the length can still find first-rate writing on the subject (most notably Charles Glass’ Tribes with Flags), but as in all our other cases, there’s an important, irreducible element that’s sacrificed to shorter length. Einstein’s famous intuition was that time was the extra dimension of reality, and what’s true in physics can’t help but be true in life as well: the rewards of sticking with a talented author through all the permutations of the story he wants to tell, the rewards of living that story over time (in addition to the purely sensory joys of living with a physical book that long – in parks, in waiting rooms, on subways, in bed, as both it and you slowly adapt to each other) – these rewards are very real, and they are the intellectual equivalents of the trembling, exultant joys marathoners know when they finish their run. Most athletes will never know those joys, because they haven’t invested the work and time necessary to run the race. Likewise, perhaps fewer and fewer new readers, raised on instant gratification and the bite-sized narrative bits they find in video games, will ever know the intense joy of incorporating a very long book into their mental architecture.
There’s nothing like that joy, but you’ve got to get there to experience it.