The phrase “A good long read” was often spoken with nostalgia by my busy parents. It was something they dreamed about but rarely achieved except around Christmastime and on summer vacations.
Most middle-class Victorian families had servants, so everyone except the servants had a lot of time on their hands. Unlike us, nineteenth-century homeowners didn’t spend their days on domestic and garden chores. They read a lot, and they loved long books. Authors were happy to write them, not least because they were paid by the word or the page. Dickens, Thackeray, Hardy and the rest routinely published novels of eight or nine hundred pages or more, to say nothing of Monsieur Proust with his mind-numbing three thousand pages. In the modern age, with so many distractions and our much shorter attention spans, these huge volumes are a challenge. I recently finished Middlemarch by George Eliot (904 pages) and The Way we Live Now by Anthony Trollope (844 pages) and I feel as though I ran two marathons, uphill all the way. They are both fine books, but the stories evolve at such a stately pace that it’s hard to remember the complicated plots and all the characters when the reading must be spread out over a period of weeks in the intervals between work and domestic chores. How wonderful it must have been to simply sit and read, knowing that dinner would be prepared, the carpets swept, and the children cared for without any effort on your part.
There have been some fine twentieth-century practitioners of the long, long novel – Tom Wolfe for example, and David Foster Wallace. You find their books abandoned in hotel lounges or discarded in yard sales and charity shops. You can see how someone might think such a book would be good for the long winter evenings. But how long could any evening be? Modern novelists are up against the scurrying realities of modern life when reading even a few pages is a victory against the odds.
Everyone loves a good story, but it needs to come to an end before we forget the plot. Sometimes one good story begets another, and another, and another, until we have that most satisfying of all fictional experiences known as a series. This form of the writer’s art is still alive and well. We have a fine backlog of multi-volume tales from writers as various as Anthony Powell, P.G. Wodehouse, John Updike, and Georges Simenon, to say nothing of the Harry Potter series that surprised everyone by getting millions of children addicted to reading something longer than a hundred and forty characters. A series is addictive without being overwhelming. It allows us to enter a world of strangers, who don’t remain strangers for long and can be encountered again and again for a lifetime, with new discoveries to be made at every reading. Because we get to know the characters we can spread our reading over weeks or years without ever losing interest or forgetting the plot. They become friends, and co-conspirators in our bid to escape our own mundane reality.
Finding a series of books that we love is like discovering a second life. The characters and settings become as real as those in our own lives, and perhaps more so. Every year I give myself the gift of the historical novels of Patrick O’Brian. If nothing disturbs my concentration I can just get through all seventeen books by the first day of January, then return to volume one. That’s what I call a good long read.