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Can Long Novels Hold You Captive?

Gravity's Rainbow: Still to come in the 101 Books.

Have you ever heard of The Stockholm Syndrome?

It’s the idea that some hostages become blindly devoted to their captors. They could be in the middle of awful circumstances, but the hostages think any sign of “kindness”—providing food or water, etc.—shows good on behalf of the captor. It’s a weird thing that the mind does under extreme stress.

Anyway, Mark O’ Connell wrote an interesting, and pretty funny, article about The Stockholm Syndrome as it relates to long novels (e.g. Infinite Jest). Earlier in life, O’ Connell despised long novels, choosing to read, say five 250 word novels, over a 1,000 page beast.

But things changed when he picked up Gravity’s Rainbow.

I can’t say that I enjoyed every minute of it, or even that I enjoyed all that much of it at all, but I can say that by the time I got to the end of it I was glad to have read it. Not just glad that I had finally finished it, but that I had started it and seen it through. I felt as though I had been through something major, as though I had not merely experienced something but done something, and that the doing and the experiencing were inseparable in the way that is peculiar to the act of reading. And I’ve had that same feeling, I realize, with almost every very long novel I’ve read before or since.

And that describes perfectly, in ways I probably can’t articulate as well, my thoughts on getting through Infinite Jest last month. It’s almost as much about having finished the book as it is about recognizing the quality of the work itself.

It’s torturous at times, like you want to beat yourself in the head out of frustration, but the moments of brilliance keep you coming back. Reading a long novel, especially a dense one like IJ or Gravity’s Rainbow, really can make you feel like you’re being held hostage. Even if you hate the book, or most of it, sometimes you feel pulled by the challenge of wanting to have read it.

You finish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewilderment or frustration or irritation—you think to yourself, “that was monumental.” But it strikes me that this sense of monumentality, this gratified speechlessness that we tend to feel at such moments of closure and valediction, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achievement in having read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achievement in having written it. When you read the kind of novel that promises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow—a Ulysses or a Brothers Karamazov or a Gravity’s Rainbow—there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more problematically, is often difficult to separate from an awe at the fact of your own surmounting of it.

It’s like I said when I reviewed Infinite Jest—it’s not just a book; it’s an experience. Anyway, many more long novels like this to come on the Time list—Gravity’s Rainbow being one. Read the entire article at The Millions.

What’s your take on the long novels? Worth “conquering” at the risk of feeling held hostage? Or would you rather read a bunch of shorter novels and skip the mammoths?

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17 Comments Post a comment
  1. At one point in my life I was a “finish what you started” kind of girl. No matter how long or how awful the book was, I finished it. At some point I realized life is too short to read bad books. Now, an ever-growing collection of abandoned books sits half-read on my shelf.

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    June 3, 2011
  2. I actually prefer reading long novels. I like the challenge and the relationship I build with a long book. With some of the tougher ones I’ve read, I like the sense of accomplishment I feel after finishing it. I enjoy the sense of dedication I feel when I spend all that time reading a 1000 page book.

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    June 3, 2011
  3. Kim #

    Definitely worth conquering. I read “Gone with the Wind” in junior high because the movie was being re-released for a weekend and I wanted to read the book before seeing the movie. I don’t remember how long it took me, but it was SUCH an accomplishment to a 12 year old to have finished it and I remember feeling really proud of myself; even 13 years later, I still get that feeling after reading long, dense books. As far as feeling held hostage…I love getting so drawn into a novel that I lose track of time and forget where I am. That’s when I know the book is worth it.

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    June 3, 2011
  4. For me, the story MUST be good regardless of book length. Stephen King’s 1100 pages of The Stand comes to mind; great story told very well over a tremendous number of pages.

    I do have a rule for any book that might apply here. If after a minimum of 50 pages I am not sucked into the book, I cast it aside. Brothers Kazamarov’s first 50 relegated its entirety to dust collection duty. Simply unreadable.

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    June 3, 2011
    • I’m generally with you on the 50 page thing, but since this list forces me to read each entire book, whether I like its opening or not, I’ve discovered that sometimes it’s worth it to give the book more of a chance.

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      June 3, 2011
  5. It depends entirely upon the book. The book I just finished was Vernor Vinge’s ‘A Fire Upon the Deep’ which was about 600 pages long. I thought it was far too long and at points had a hard time getting through it On the other hand, go read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. I’ve plowed through these books and the average book length is probably a little over 800 pages. The series as a whole is over 11,000 pages and 4,000,000+ words and it’s a wonderful read.

    The last time I reread the series I went through each book in about a week, and this is while working part-time and going to school full time.

    More and more though I am beginning to appreciate some shorter books, but I still have no problem with the huge books as long as they’re well written.

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    June 3, 2011
  6. For me, there is a real difference between a long novel like The Brothers Karamazov and Infinite Jest or Gravity’s Rainbow.

    It took me a couple of times to get into Brothers, but once I did it became my favorite novel, with Blood Meridian running a close 2nd (I’ve read Brothers 6 times; Blood Meridian 5).

    However, Gravity’s Rainbow did not have the same impact. GR is an amazing piece of literature, but for me it does not have the kind of existential import that The Brother’s Karamazov does. Furthermore, in my opinion, with Brothers doing the heavy lifting has a payoff that far exceeds just “personal achievement”. Not so much with Gravity’s Rainbow, which I think is interesting and nifty, but for me it was not life changing.

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    June 3, 2011
    • Interesting thoughts. I’m intrigued by Gravity’s Rainbow, but I’ll probably hold off on reading it for awhile.

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      June 3, 2011
  7. Teresa #

    I also have a 50 pages & quit rule that serves me well. But I don’t have a 750 pages rule for a 1000 page book like Infinite Jest. I tried to set it down at that point. I was fed up with it. Genius, yes. Tedious, yes. IJ has so many fans that I felt I needed to honor their good opinion of the book. I also wanted to see how he managed to piece the the ending together, I finished it last night but I still feel a sense of frustration and I am still in hostage mode — probably because it really does take a second reading (as DFW said it does) to piece the ends of the mammoth tale together. The book takes an extraordinary effort to read well. I am okay with long books and with complex books but I don’t think that this one played fair with the reader.

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    June 3, 2011
    • Congrats on finishing IJ!

      I definitely feel your frustration. I had to browse around and look at some of the supplementary stuff to try and understand it. Simply don’t have time, for a long time, to read it again. It’s definitely a heavy lifter, in more ways than one.

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      June 3, 2011
  8. Pamela Scott #

    I’ve read more mammoth books than shorter ones. Most books I read are over 700 pages long. The longest I read was the paperback of Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ at 1,116 pages. I read short novels but prefer getting caught up in a long novel for a couple of months.

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    June 3, 2011
  9. B Day #

    I always try to finish a book I start, but I think long novels are usually a sign of poor editing. It’s very few that I have not thought could have some sections condensed or removed and still had the same effect (Catch-22 is one of these).

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    June 3, 2011
  10. I think the mammoths are important. If they are mammoths simply because the author is wordy, that is a problem, but if it is just a really long story, bring it on. Often, I’m sad when a book ends. If it can keep on going, the only thing that bothers me are my arms as I attempt to carry it everywhere.

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    June 3, 2011
  11. How fascinating… my husband reckons I’ve given him Stockholm Syndrome over carbon counting (that’s another story really), but being a book hostage actually sounds appealing. Just wanted to say that I struggled with Middlemarch (go on, try it!) by George Eliot and took about 5 years to complete it. Wonderful satisfaction, and I quite liked it by the end, even planning to re-read. I’d prefer books to be shorter (better for those trees too), but if it has to be long, and the editor agrees, I’m good to go with a big tome. Just don’t let the publishers make the print too small. Nicola

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    June 3, 2011
  12. I like long novels, maybe because too many good novels end too soon.
    When reading something long, I am in no rush and might read other books in between. For “The Magic Mountain” by Thomas Mann I took almost 2 years for example. It was beautiful to enjoy this book for such a long time.

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    June 12, 2011
  13. I loved the article you linked to. Hilarious! Especially, since I am coming off my own monster read – Midnight’s Children, which I hated, was bored by, and then eventually fell in love with. I can’t say though that all monster books evoked such feelings though. I read Mason and Dixon by Pynchon a few years back and my primary emotion was being bored to tears, and finally disbelief that an author could actually write so much about so little.

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    June 15, 2011

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