Monstrosities of paper

The Complete Works of Primo Levi. 3008 pages. Zibaldone: The Notebooks of Leopardi. 2592 pages. Hitler: Volume 1: Ascent 1889-1939. 1008 pages. Steven Erikson’s ten-volume Malazan Book of the Fallen. Upwards of 8000 pages. These are books and series I am reading now, or have recently finished. But why are they all door stoppers? When a friend asked if I’d read anything good lately, I replied with these monstrosities of paper, and I prefaced the list by saying, “I’m in love with big books at the moment. Don’t ask why because I don’t know.” Well, I do know, now.

A lot of my life is spent in cyberspace. On Reddit, on Twitter, writing short-form pieces for my blog, sending emails, editing short-ish posts for others. One word to describe such an existence is “transient.” The nature of these interactions is impermanent and fleeting. I don’t capture the tweets I read, I don’t archive the Reddit posts that make me guffaw. Online, it seems, I live moment to moment. My reading of big books is a response to that. 

First, strategically, if everyone is going shallow, it seems sensible that I go deep. If the mass of people are trapped in an upwards-spiral of shortness, I want to be doing the opposite. I want to go long. There’s utility in going where everyone else ain’t. Second, psychologically, a big book is intimidating It demands endurance, and often, because of its size, it can treat a subject with more nuance and from more angles, which means that you have to comprehend it with nuance and from different angles. I can read a business book in a day. It’s going to take me years to make it through the Zibaldone and to assimilate its ideas in my mind. Third—and this is the most flimsy reason—big books are cool. As someone who has a mediocre education, and wasn’t raised as an intellectual-expert type—and doesn’t identify as one—it’s nice to have something on my desk which heralds the difference between where I am now and where I started. Fourth, and finally, as I hinted at above, big books are the opposite of online culture. They require time, patience, devotion even. They force me to slow down, to be where I am, to pause and recall what was said three hundred pages ago so I can make sense of the next one hundred pages. Their weighty presence in my life helps me stay grounded, keeps me anchored in the here and now. 

Strategic sensibility, psychological challenge, egotistical signalling, a counter-weight to online culture: these are the reasons I read big books.