More than anything, reading big books, or not, is a matter of convenience. As much as I want to read Annals of the Former World, do I really want to lug a thousand pages around on the subway?
Cancer Ward (536 pg.) is about as big as I can comfortably get on the bus, or at a bar in between periods of a hockey game or bands at a rock show. And to add another element of technological determinism: as I increasingly carry books with me not in my little shapeless green bag but tucked beside my laptop in my bigger but fitted black bag. I could get away with Nixonland in the green bag, but the black bag is less forgiving.
But it’s also a matter of commitment and the lens of memory. I don’t like to read books together, I like to go right through, alone, so to read a big book is to consign my imagination to one book alone for weeks. And as such, that book is my memory lens for those several weeks, the key to walking back through where I was then.
My summer of 2009 is framed by three books. I remember the shorter books too, but not in context, and they aren’t my association, for the simple fact that while I may sink in just as deeply, I may only spend a day or two inside. If I had spent two weeks with Divisadero or The Only Snow in Havana they might be just as determining as the big books I did read but no, I raced right through and have kept just impressions in memory. What I do have, from my summer of 2009: Keith Maillard, Difficulty at the Beginning (1007 pg, over 4 volumes); Don DeLillo, Underworld (827 pg); and Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: the Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. (748 pg.) These books are the frame due to the time I spent with them and their scope. And neither the scope or the time could have occurred without the page count.
So I agree about big books and the categorical distinction. (Which is, of course, relative itself. 280pg is my Platonic form, but a formal Big Book needs ‘heft,’ not mere page count. ‘Heft,’ wonderfully, is a variable term. VS Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival is a ‘big book’ with ‘heft’ because that’s how I read it, even though it has just 354 pages) What I don’t like is the ‘belt-notch’ factor. I didn’t listen to a Bob Dylan record until I could find a context for listening to a Bob Dylan record (that context, in a cute but unplanned segue, was reading Nixonland in July 2009) that extended beyond the ‘belt-notch’: the need to listen to a Bob Dylan record because I should have listened to a Bob Dylan record by now. The Everest analogy is apt: this is the because-it’s-there theory of reading. Even worse, imagine working from a list, the eat-your-vegetables theory of reading; the reason many people don’t.
I don’t like the belt-notch/Everest question, tallying books for some absurd future swordfight, but I do like the guiding Stockholm-syndrome analogy – as Elizabeth Minkel rephrases, the idea of a book having ownership of its reader. And I have to admit to some sympathy for the Everest question on consideration: read a big book because it’s there, sure – it’s all arbitrary, including the four months in 2010 during which I only read books with black-white-red spines. But there’s no intrinsic virtue in a big book – only the virtue you manage to glean.