In praise of long, slow reads

With the publication of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s multi-volume diary, My Struggle, in English this spring, there have been lots of pieces written about the value of reading long, challenging books, including this one by the Globe’s Ian Brown. Knausgaard’s diaries don’t particularly interest me as pleasure reading, but the stories about them set me thinking about my own picks for long, slow reads.

I’m not the first to observe that at a time when most of us monitor some sort of news feed for most of the day — be it an actual news feed, a social media stream or something else along those lines — our ability to concentrate on longer, more demanding writing seems to be shrinking. That’s my own experience, anyway. Our ability to focus on one thing and pay attention to it is like a muscle that doesn’t get as much of a work out as it once did, unlike our ability to scan.

So, when I feel like all I’m doing is scanning during the day, I switch up my usual pleasure reading habits and take on a longer, more demanding project — something that requires a lot of my attention and isn’t a quick read. Getting started on this type of reading is the hardest part, since it feels like such a different experience than most of the reading (scanning) I do during the day. But once I make it over that initial hump, I’m usually hooked.

I usually take on these long, slow reads during the holidays, both in the winter and during the summer, when I feel like I have a bit more energy and attention to devote to it (whether this is true not is another matter). Often, I use it as an opportunity to read a classic of some description, since making my way through older English grammar and punctuation is enough to slow me down from my usual quick pace of reading.

A few summers ago, I decided to read through the works of Jane Austen. I’d read Pride and Prejudice in school and picked up Sense and Sensibility at one point on my own (maybe after the movie?). I remembered enjoying them and being surprised by how funny they were (actually funny, not just funny-for-a-classic-English-novel kind of way), so I dove into the rest of the Austen canon (except for her juvenilia). As far as classics go, Austen’s books proved to be a fairly easy read. Punctuation is used differently than we use it today, so that makes it for a bit of a slower read, but overall, I found them quite straightforward. My favourites of Austen’s new-to-me books: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

After my Austen reading ended up being less challenging (read: onerous) than I had expected, I thought I’d up my game and move on to George Eliot’s (aka Mary Ann Evans’s) Middlemarch, a book that I’d often read about, particularly in comparison to Austen, but never actually read. It’s a longer read than Austen’s novels and a bit more realistic and darker, but once again, I quite enjoyed it, once I got past the opening essay and into the actual plot.

After that, I moved into something quite a bit different: Cao Xueqin’s series The Story of the Stone (the first of the five volumes is called The Golden Days). This was my first foray into Chinese literature of any sort, let alone Chinese literature from the 18th century. But I’d read this piece about the series in The Telegraph, about how seminal the books are in China but more or less unheard of in the western world, and decided to give them a shot, especially as they were readily available an inexpensive, attractive Penguin translation.

Briefly, the books are about one family’s dramatic rise and fall, told in exquisite detail. It took me a while to get into the books — I know little about Chinese literature or history, so a lot of the allusions were lost on me — but just as with Middlemarch, once the plot picked up and I came to recognize the characters (there are lots of them), I was hooked and made my way through all five volumes quite quickly and was sad to see them end (to say nothing of the family members’ mostly tragic ends). A lot of the action takes place in the main family’s “garden,” essentially park built inside an enormous courtyard, with different types of gardens and lakes and even a mountain. The description of the garden being built and its many features were entrancing. I keep telling people I know to try out these books, and even gave my brother a copy of them for Christmas one year, but so far, I think I’m the only person I know who’s read them. I hope that changes, because they’re a great read.

After tackling Chinese literature, I thought I’d go in a different direction this year. Knowing that I’d be making my first visit to Paris in the spring, I picked up Marcel Proust’s six-volume In Search of Lost Time. So far, I’ve made it through the first two books. I’d always heard that Proust made for a tough read, and I thought it was because his writing was particularly complicated, but it isn’t. Especially for a translation, his writing is easy to follow and much more modern-feeling than I’d expected. But it is slow going: written as a long stream of consciousness, the books (so far, at least) recount the main character’s memories of childhood, and the writing is so lovely that, for me at least, it becomes quite mesmerizing, so that it’s easy to find yourself at the end of the page, wondering what you just read. So, it takes a lot of attention, but the reward is great. The writing is some of the loveliest I’ve encountered, and Proust had a wonderful eye and mind for imagery. Although the one of the madeleine is the one that I heard most about, it was his description of moonlight coming in through his bedroom window’s shutters, casting a ladder of moonlight across his bed, that captured me from the opening chapter. I’ve taken a break from Proust for the moment, as I have some other books I’d like to get caught up on, but I’m looking forward to returning to him.