The Stockholm Syndrome Theory of Long Novels

May 16, 2011 | 10 books mentioned 114 8 min read

covercoverI used to be the kind of reader who gives short shrift to long novels. I used to take a wan pleasure in telling friends who had returned from a tour of duty with War and Peace or The Man Without Qualities with that I’ve-seen-some-things look in their eyes—the thousand-page stare—that they had been wasting their time. In the months it had taken them to plough through one book by some logorrheic modernist or world-encircling Russian, I had read a good eight to ten volumes of svelter dimensions. While they were bench-pressing, say, Infinite Jest for four months solid, I had squared away most of the major Nouveau Romanciers, a fistful of Thomas Bernhards, every goddamned novel Albert Camus ever wrote, and still had time to read some stuff I actually enjoyed.

I was a big believer, in other words, in the Slim Prestige Volume. Nothing over 400 pages. Why commit yourself to one gigantic classic when you can read a whole lot of small classics in the same period of time, racking up at least as much intellectual cachet while you were at it? I took Hippocrates’ famous dictum about ars being longa and vita being brevis as a warning against starting a book in your twenties that might wind up lying still unfinished on the nightstand of your deathbed. Aside from the occasional long novel––one every twelve to eighteen months––I was a Slim Prestige Volume man, and that seemed to be that.

covercoverEven when I went back to college in my mid-twenties to do a PhD in English literature, I still relied on a kind of intellectual cost-benefit analysis that persuaded me that my time was better spent broadening than deepening—or, as it were, thickening—my reading­­. Had I read Dostoevsky? Sure I had: I’d spent a couple of rainy evenings with Notes From Underground, and found it highly agreeable. Much better than The Double, in fact, which I’d also read. So yeah, I knew my Dostoevsky. Next question, please. Ah yes, Tolstoy! Who could ever recover from reading The Death of Ivan Illych, that thrilling (and thrillingly brief) exploration of mortality and futility?

coverThere’s a memorable moment in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 where Amalfitano, the unhinged Catalan professor of literature, encounters a pharmacist working the night shift at his local drug store whom he discovers is reading his way diligently through the minor works of the major novelists. The young pharmacist, we are told, “chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers.” This causes Amalfitano to reflect on the “sad paradox” that “now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”

Apart from being a powerful vindication of Bolaño’s own staggering ambition, and of his novel’s vast and unyielding darkness, I found that this passage reflected something of my own slightly faint-hearted reading practices (practices from which, by the time I had got around to reading the 900-page 2666, I had obviously started to deviate). A bit of a bookish pharmacist myself, I was content with netting minnows like Bartleby, while leaving the great Moby-Dick-sized leviathans largely unharpooned. I was fond of Borges’ famous remark about its being “a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books,” and tended to extrapolate from it a dismissal of reading them too—as though Borges, the great wanderer and mythologizer of labyrinths, would ever have approved of such readerly timidity.

coverAnd then, three or four years ago, something changed. For some reason I can’t recall (probably a longish lapse in productivity on my thesis) I set myself the task of reading a Great Big Important Novel. For another reason I can’t recall (probably the fact that it had been sitting on a shelf for years, its pages turning the sullen yellow of neglected great books), I settled on 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.

covercoverYou 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.

coverThe upshot of this, I think, is that the greatness of a novel in the mind of its readers is often alloyed with those readers’ sense of their own greatness (as readers) for having conquered it. I don’t think William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, for instance, is nearly as fantastic a novel as people often claim it is. But it is one of the most memorable and monumental experiences of my reading life. And these are the reasons why: because the thing was just so long; because I had such a hard time with it; and because I eventually finished it. (I read it as part of an academic reading group devoted to long and difficult American novels, and I’m not sure I would have got to the end of it otherwise). Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and length is a version of climbing Everest for people who prefer not to leave the house. And people who climb Everest don’t howl with exhilaration at the summit because the mountain was a good or a well made or an interesting mountain per se, but because they’re overawed at themselves for having done such a fantastically difficult thing. (I’m willing to concede that they may not howl with exhilaration at all, what with the tiredness, the lack of oxygen and very possibly the frostbite. I’ll admit to being on shaky ground here, as I’ve never met anyone who’s climbed Everest, nor am I likely to if I continue not going out of the house.)

And there is, connected with this phenomenon, what I think of as Long Novel Stockholm syndrome. My own first experience of it—or at least my first conscious experience of it—was, again, with The Recognitions. With any novel of that difficulty and length (976 pages in my prestigiously scuffed and battered Penguin edition), the reader’s aggregate experience is bound to be composed of a mixture of frustrations and pleasures. But what I found with Gaddis’s gigantic exploration of fraudulence and creativity was that, though they were greatly outnumbered by the frustrations, the pleasures seemed to register much more firmly. If I were fully honest with myself, I would have had to admit that I was finding the novel gruelingly, unsparingly tedious. But I wasn’t prepared to be fully honest with myself. Because every couple of hundred pages or so, Gaddis would take pity on me and throw me a bone in the form of an engaging, genuinely compelling set piece. Like the wonderful episode in which one of the characters, under the impression that he is being given a gift of $5,000 by his long-lost father whom he has arranged to meet at a hotel, is in fact mistakenly being given a suitcase full of counterfeit cash by a failed confidence man. And then Gaddis would roll up his sleeves again and get back to the real business of boring me insensible with endless pages of direct-dialogue bluster about art, theology and the shallowness of post-war American culture.

coverI kept at it, doughtily ploughing my way through this seemingly inexhaustible stuff, holding out for another interlude of clemency from an author I knew was capable of entertaining and provoking me. At some point towards the end of the book it occurred to me that what I was experiencing could be looked at as a kind of literary variant of the Stockholm syndrome phenomenon, whereby hostages experience a perverse devotion to their captors, interpreting any abstention from violence and cruelty, however brief or arbitrary, as acts of kindness and even love. Psychologically, this is understood as a defense mechanism in which the victim fabricates a “good” side of the aggressor in order to avoid confronting the overwhelming terror of his or her situation. Perhaps I’m stretching the bonds of credulity by implicitly comparing William Gaddis to a FARC guerilla commander, but I’m convinced there’s something that happens when we get into a captive situation with a long and difficult book that is roughly analogous to the Stockholm syndrome scenario. For a start, the book’s very length lays out (for a certain kind of reader, at least) its own special form of imperative—part challenge, part command. The thousand-pager is something you measure yourself against, something you psyche yourself up for and tell yourself you’re going to endure and/or conquer. And this does, I think, amount to a kind of captivity: once you’ve got to Everest base camp, you really don’t want to pack up your stuff and turn back. I think it’s this principle that explains, for example, the fact that I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow but gave up halfway through The Crying of Lot 49, when the latter could be used as a handy little bookmark for the former. When you combine this (admittedly self-imposed) captivity with a novel’s formidable reputation for greatness, you’ve got a perfect set of conditions for the literary Stockholm syndrome to kick in.

coverIn order for a very long novel to get away with long, cruel sessions of boredom-torture, it has to commit, every so often, an act of kindness such as the counterfeit cash set piece in The Recognitions. This is why Ulysses is so deeply loved by so many readers—as well it should be—while Finnegans Wake has been read almost exclusively by Joyce scholars (of whom I’m tempted to think as the Patty Hearsts of literature). After the grueling ordeal of the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode, in which Stephen stands around in the National Library for dozens of pages boring everyone to damn-near-literal tears with his theories about the provenance of Hamlet, we are given the unrestrained pleasure of the “Wandering Rocks” episode. Ulysses might treat us like crap for seemingly interminable stretches of time, but it extends just enough in the way of writerly benevolence to keep us onside. And this kindness is the key to Stockholm syndrome. You don’t know when it’s going to come, or what form it’s going to take, but you get enough of it to keep you from despising your captor, or mounting a brave escape attempt by flinging the wretched thing across the room. According to an article called “Understanding Stockholm Syndrome” published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bullettin:

Kindness serves as the cornerstone of Stockholm syndrome; the condition will not develop unless the captor exhibits it in some form toward the hostage. However, captives often mistake a lack of abuse as kindness and may develop feelings of appreciation for this perceived benevolence. If the captor is purely evil and abusive, the hostage will respond with hatred. But if perpetrators show some kindness, victims will submerge the anger they feel in response to the terror and concentrate on the captors “good side” to protect themselves.

If you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t intend to give up on a Great Big Important Novel no matter how inhumanely it treats you, then there’s a sense in which Joyce or Pynchon or Gaddis (or whoever your captor happens to be) owns you for the duration of that captivity. In order to maintain your sanity, you may end up being disproportionately grateful for the parts where they don’t threaten to bore you to death, where there seems to be some genuine empathic connection between reader and writer. Machiavelli understood this truth long before a Swedish bank robbery turned into a hostage crisis and gave the world the name for a psychological condition. “Men who receive good when they expect evil,” Machiavelli wrote, “commit themselves all the more to their benefactor.” When he wrote that line in the early sixteenth century, the novel, of course, did not yet exist as a genre. I’m inclined to imagine, though, that if he’d been born a century later, he might well have said the same thing about Don Quixote.

is a staff writer for The Millions and a book columnist for Slate. His ebook, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever, was published by The Millions in 2013. His book To Be a Machine will be published by Doubleday in March 2017. He lives in Dublin.


  1. The first paragraph of this doesn’t make sense. Not one Thomas Bernhard novel reaches 400 pages. Two are circa 350 and the majority under 200 pages, many less than 150. By all mean say daft things about Bernhard – I do it all the time: e.g. he is the greatest post-war novelist – but don’t misrepresent his work.

  2. Hi Steve, read that first paragraph again. He is commenting on the pleasant shortness of Bernhard’s novels in comparison to the long novels that some readers prefer to “bench press.”

  3. I don’t understand the stigma of “long” novels. You read them one page at a time, just like other novels. What’s the difference between reading one 1,000 page novel and five 200 page novels?

  4. Fair (and funny) enough!
    But does that imply that all long novels are alike? That all who fall in love with novels in the 650-plus demograph are misled by the very fact of their lengthiness?

  5. Loved this essay–fun, funny and largely true, I think. I certainly have had my share of these experiences with long novels (Infinite Jest, War and Peace, Les Mierables, etc.). One small correction: I believe that the word “captive” in the parenthetical in the first sentence of the last paragraph should instead be “captor.”

  6. @Freek. I definitely wouldn’t be that uncompromising about it. I don’t think it’s the case with *all* novels over a certain length (650-plus pages is as good a watershed point as any other). I wouldn’t accuse, say, Anna Karenina of being a Stockholm Syndrome novel, or even Moby-Dick. But then again lots of other readers might. I suppose I may, for rhetorical reasons, have laid this out a little more categorically than it warrants. It’s as much a personal thing as anything, really – but it is definitely something that has arisen in my reading of a lot of novels over a certain length. Thanks.

  7. I buy books by the pound, meaning I love big fat books. But yes, when they are really good I am a prisoner. Life is on hold, only the most important things get done. When I have to take a break, just to get groceries or do what I have to do, the real world seems alien. I live in the book not in the real world. While this is bad work ethic, it’s a wonderful experience.

  8. Seems to me invoking the Stockholm Syndrome is a bit of a stretch..

    Reading long novels (some of them, anyway) is an instance of what I call the Bus Stop Paradox, which I suppose is really just a subcategory of the cost-benefit analysis mentioned in the essay. In a nutshell, once you decide to start waiting for a bus you’ve set the paradox in motion. The longer you wait, the more invested you are in waiting for it to arrive, even though it’s increasingly likely that there is a legitimate and possibly serious reason for its nonappearance. Even when (or if) it arrives, the probability that it will be crowded and unpleasant to ride increases.

    Of course, in the real world sometimes a torrent of delayed buses arrive all at once and misery is avoided. Other times, it’s possible to hedge your bet by walking toward the destination in the hope that the bus will appear (and you won’t be caught between stops). But let’s ignore the various real-world subtleties—even though plausible analogies to the reading experience can often be constructed—and keep it simple.

  9. Curious if any of you have read one of my favorite long novels (scandalously out of print) Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess. Not as heavy as Rainbow or the Recognitions (both of which I had great pleasure reading) but a great book nonetheless.

  10. Mark OConnell makes use of the condition, Stockholm Syndrome, too lightly. His meandering from work to work does little to shore up his postulation. Page counts do not make a disease. Trying to prove it, or rather make it fit, does speak certainly to an ill-conceived, sophomoric paper in dire need of direction and facts.

    Indeed OConnell has had the Syndrome work in reverse on him, slaved to his postulation that this disease claims its victim at the what thresold? Is it six, seven or eight-hundred pages? OConnell must constant identify with his theory, but looking in it is a flawed bit of pseudo-psychologically.

  11. @Dale: I’ve read “Earthly Powers,” a marvelous book. It’s long but is written in a page-turning style that makes it more approachable than many of the doorstops described here.

  12. I enjoyed this essay, thanks. “Boring” through long classics is definitely intimidating and arduous, like Everest and training to run a grueling marathon. They are punishing to the mind and body, but there are rewards to look forward to, and I appreciate the humorous, and probably accurate, analogy to the Stockholm Syndrome. The longest “book” I’ve read is The Lord of the Rings (and my longest run 15 miles), so I’ll keep the ideas of this essay in mind when I soon tackle the more monumental reading achievement of Don Quixote, and then graduate to Dostoyevsky. However, Ulysses and marathons still seem like torture!

  13. Timely column for myself as Im 1/3 of the way through Thomas Pynchon’s Against The Day. I do agree that people have the tendency to over praise novels of great length once theyve finished them, mistaking their conquering of the text as literary achievement. Though I will say some of my favorite books are bricks of over 800 pages. I think the Bolano quote is dead on. One of the reasons people (myself included) feel so strongly about lengthy tomes is that they have seen real battle, an author extending themselves to their limits, and often beyond, wrestling with those big important questions. The battle cant be confined to a quaint exercise of 200 pages. It has to shed blood over dozens of stories, digressions, set pieces, and asides. One has to give merit to the author who is daring enough to put themselves through the mental anguish of committing to such an endeavor.

  14. I love the casual anti-intellectualism that attempts to pass as a more refined sensibility in this article. Of course William Gaddis is to blame for the reader’s boredom, and the fact that we live in an age of philistines (as this article proves) has nothing to do with it!

  15. Interesting essay, and I’m tickled that you used the analogy of Everest, because that’s the mountain I incorporated into the title of my blog, where I talk about precisely this issue — the feat of reading, and having read, giant slabs of great fiction. I read, finally, “Moby Dick” (yes, including the “whaling chapters,” and yes, I enjoyed it) and I just cleared page 400 of “Clarissa,” and will not stop until I’ve also completed “War and Peace,” “Ulysses” and “In Search of Lost Time.” Yes, 18th century prose can be annoying at times, but it also can be pleasurable if you get your head in the right place. I figure after 1,500 pages of Samuel Richardson, 643 pages of Joyce will be like climbing a couple flights of stairs.

  16. great article, there are two long novels i never finished and even though in some sense i had to stop reading them because i was literally getting nothing out of them it does still kinda nag at me, they are Women and Men and The Tunnel. Anyone else love these books? tell me what i missed!

  17. Having spent four years intermittently reading the whole of “In Search of Lost Time” I get an idea of what the author is saying. But to be honest, I mostly loved the whole of the novel and consider it the peak experience of my reading life. Not only due to the length, and admittedly there were one or two later volumes that had its longuers (“The Prisoner” aptly comes to mind), but mainly due to the fact that it was so beautifully written throughout. “The Magic Mountain”, on the other hand, definitely is being described by this article with the interminable discussions between Naptha and Settembrini.

  18. “. . . but what in heaven’s name do you want to know this sort of thing for? A novel? . . . Yes. The what? The Recognitions? No, it’s Clement of Rome. Mostly talk, talk, talk. The young man’s deepest concern is for the immortality of his soul, he goes to Egypt to find the magicians and learn their secrets. It’s been referred to as the first Christian novel. What? Yes, it’s really the beginning of the whole Faust legend. But one can hardly . . . eh? My, your friend is writing for a rather small audience, isn’t he.” — William Gaddis, The Recognitions

  19. I’ve actually read Richardson’s Clarissa, took me eight weeks – on the metro, during breaks, at home, but I did it and it was worth it, although there were times I wanted to smack Clarissa and Lovelace’s heads together. Someday soon I hope to read the complete Tale of Genji. Wish me luck.

  20. Also this essay reminds me, whatever happened to your series called Difficult Books? I thought it was a wonderful idea, and the earlier pieces were stellar. Is this project dead or will there be further entries? Seems tailor made to tackle questions of “big” books like those mentioned.

  21. Maria, I actually tackled “The Tale of Genji” after I finished “Moby Dick,” but I finally had to put it down because the novel just was not involving me emotionally. I plan to give it another go at some point. Gary: I would be interested to know whether you feel “In Search of Lost Time” ought to be read (ideally) over a shorter duration. To use the analogy of film, if I see “Lawrence of Arabia” in segmens of 1 to 5 minutes apiece, over a period of six months, have I really seen “Lawrence of Arabia?” I’m not trying to diminish your experience. I’m just curious about how the impact of a book might vary depending on how long one takes to read it.

  22. What a hoot. My New Year’s Resolution for 2011 was to read 10 novels I should have read but had never gotten around to. I started with Ulysses, moved on to Anna Karenina, and just finished Daniel Deronda. And I’m still managing to leave the house every once in a while — albeit with book under my arm. On to Swann’s Way.

  23. Disagree. Reading is the opposite of struggle and/or conquest. Or it ought to be. Long books, like love, are surrendered to, not overcome. I remember a wonderful essay about this, years ago. Ah, here it is: “Reading Proust is about as difficult as falling off a cliff.”* (Eleven years ago!) Could The Millions run this essay as a tonic for the bitter athlete’s drink they just served us?

    * Another gem: “…to fall into Proust’s work is a trackless, opiated pleasure — a surrender — which only becomes ‘difficult’ when approached as a kind of self-improving challenge for the intellectual athlete.”

  24. I loved this! As I’ve loved Anna Karenina (even though I had to read way too much about Levin to get to the juicy parts with Vronsky). I’ve started Ulysses maybe 5 times in my lifetime and I still haven’t read more than 20 pages, but that book sits prominently in my library patiently waiting for me to be ready for it. And I give it loving stares every time I pass it, renewing my silent promise “One day, Stephen, one day…” I find that reading a long and hard book is a hard but satisfying adventure, that I’ve only experienced few times (Goethe’s Faust!) and I need/want to experience it more.

  25. From the time I learned to read, I loved long novels. I grew up reading the Russians.

    I loved entering that magical world and lingering there for a long time.

    It took until graduate school for me to start appreciating novellas and short stores.

  26. The Russians were the best at stuffing great stories into short books, the kind a shallow mind like mine can enjoy. Not just ‘Notes,’ But ‘Envy,’ ‘Heart of a Dog,’ Gogol’s shorts and a lot more. Even ‘We’ is short. They also wrote the biggest books the world has ever seen but what do you expect when some of the greatest writers ever are jammed together in the same country?

  27. I hate to make statements like this, but I think it’s all relative.

    I HATED The Magic Mountain when I first tried it, threw it down in disgust, claimed indignantly that Mann couldn’t write an interesting sentence. Years later I picked it up, started climbing, and can still see that majestic, surreal panorama of the modern world from my window. I love Ulysses, don’t see the big deal about Proust. The Brothers Karamazov was my go-to for the ‘so what’s your favorite book ever, lit guy?’ queston for years, while I’ve respectfully bowed out of Musil and Cervantes.

    Isn’t it about language? If the prose gets into your head, the perceptions and the insights and the rythms of the novelist jibe with your own, you can plow into a “loose, baggy monster” with joy and due speed. If you find the writing dry as dust, it’s just not going to happen without some grudging diligence.

    The weird question is (and for any passionate reader of fiction I’m sure this isn’t coming completely out of the blue) what do you do about the big fat novels you want to RE-read?

  28. V., Don Quixote, Moby Dick (with all the whaling bits), The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings/Silmarillion, Crime and Punishment. These were all great reads.

    But “Magic Mountain’. Yeech. The more I read, the more creepier it became.

    Were the doctors really trying to cure anyone? Were they purposely trying to make people sick for the money? Were they well intentioned but incompetent? Was I supposed to figure this out, or was this all supposed to be left up in the air? Meanwhile I’m stuck in a claustrophobic world of sickrooms with monotonous turns in the cafeteria punctuated only occasionally by short walks around the grounds or to town.

    It felt like The Village in The Prisoner. But at least there I had someone to root for, and a reason to root for him.

  29. I’ve read Clarissa and really enjoyed it. Franzen, on the other hand, was definitely a case of Stockholm Syndrome.

  30. This article was way too long. Do you have any shorter articles that get the general point across that I can read?

  31. to confuse the notion that a very long novel is a good or worthy piece of fiction with the self-congratulatory back-slaps at having “summited” said novel is silly–and also typical of a culture as driven to making itself feel good as ours is. good heavens, if a book is a bore, why bother? where is the merit in saying you were (for the most part) bored, frustrated, confused, irritated, whatever, for many long months but, ta-da!, here you are now, finally finished with that massochistic chore? and what so distinguishes you from any other self-absorbed individual wanting to feel good about having done something for the precise reason that you’d feel good about it afterwards? as i say, silly.

  32. The Stockholm Syndrome analogy is apt because the overall artistic project of the long-winded author is indeed evil and indulgent, despite refreshing moments of cogency.

    Commenter Tim Wyman will not win debates with the “anti-intellectual philistine” insult. There are brilliant short novels which are intellectually awe-inspiring precisely because they manage to say something in a reasonable amount of space.

    But enjoy what you wish.

  33. Mike Mundy … you’re a wild man! I want to not party with you, cowboy. This is a terrific article. Enjoyed it for being concise.

  34. You do realize that THE RECOGNTIONS, GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, and ULYSSES are–intentionally–*funny*, don’t you? If you don’t, and I don’t see any indication that you do, you read them wrong.

  35. For several busy years I avoided long books and got in the habit of reading novels of 350 pages or fewer. However, last month I read The Lonely Polygamist, by Brady Udall, (602 pages) and was hooked till the end, so much so that I finished it in a week. Maybe I’ll tackle a few more long books now.

  36. Another reason people are willing to read super-long literary novels is because they think it’s somehow making them better people, morally or otherwise. Or at least that’s what I used to think back when I read more literature. Once I became disabused of this notion, my reading dropped off precipitously — correlation or causation?

  37. Who is Mark OConnell??? I never heard of him, but this is one of the cleverest, most pleasing things I’ve read in a long time. Captivating!

  38. @Dale
    I’ve read Earthly Powers. I didn’t love it, but by the time I was halfway I was like; well, I’ve come this far.

    Anna Karenina took ten days to read while on a teeny-tiny island with no electricity in the Andaman Sea (Vronsky never did it for me though – I preferred Levin – I know, heresy). But that’s the secret: remove your distractions. When there’s no internet or English speakers, the book that was too daunting for the bus ride to work suddenly becomes incredibly attractive. I did the same thing the following year with Vanity Fair in Cambodia (admittedly not really a scary volume). But that’s only because I chickened out of putting The Brothers Karamazov in my backpack. The shorter ‘summer reading’ novels, IMO, are much better suited to fitting around one’s ordinary daily life, and the big guys for the holidays.

    My favourite epic-in-scale read is probably A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. I was so sad for it to be over when it was.

  39. I agree with Emma about the importance of removing distractions in order to concentrate. For years people told me I’d love the Lymond Saga by Dorothy Dunnett (in 5 volumes.) I could never get started on book 1 which has an awful lot of Scottish dialect. However I took the book when called to jury duty and by lunchtime I knew that I had to go get the second one in case I finished it. I think part of our problem in reading long books is it’s hard to carve out good-sized chunks of “just reading” time.

  40. I’m a convert in the opposite direction:I used to read the Interminable Tomes with the self-satisfied pleasure of a committed masochist: oh, it’s long, it’s painful to read and if I finish it, I’ll be a certifiably better person than those poor souls who didn’t have what it takes to accomplish the mission.

    Somewhere in the endless pages of of Gravity’s Rainbow I broke down and had to admit: it’s just boring. I know that calling something “boring” isn’t necessarily a very profound critical approach, but sometimes there is no better way to describe it. Whatever little (little!) islands of interest may be found in Rainbow (and its ilk) are buried under an avalanche of logorrhea too deep for my meager ability.

    Life is too short; read less, get out of the house more. It will do you good.

  41. Mark O’Connell-

    This was funny and excellent. It occurred to me while reading the article that your Stockholm Syndrome ‘theory’ of the long novel could also be read a metaphor for life itself: a slog through lots of frustrating and boring moments punctuated by interludes of the sublime, which, if we are among the lucky, make the whole enterprise more than worth it. Although I doubt there are many people who feel a sense of achievement upon dying.


  42. Thanks for mentioning A Suitable Boy, Allison, it was the first book that popped into my head when I read this piece.

    Less for it being a struggle (it was an undiluted pleasure for me, all 1300 pages, though I know some of my friends blank out the political bits) than for its meta-level discussion of reading long books. Between the sonnet at the beginning and Amit’s irreverent but insightful comments about reading long books (Kuku, I am reading this unreadable Proust…/I still bear the scars of Middlemarch) I think it explores the feeling of reading a certain kind of long novel while being, itself, a very different model.

    I could talk about ASB for days, though.

  43. I don’t think we need to trot out the old “anti-intellectualism” saw in this case; the author clearly appreciates Gaddis and his unwieldy project. Reflexive condemnation of “the times” and reckless use of the word “Philistines” (and “postulation” for that matter,) won’t make “The Recognitions” any less of a demanding or frustrating experience for even the most devoted readers.

  44. @Mark (bis): Understood!
    Althoud I do admit that I did not think you would go so far, and although my question was rhetorically inspired, to say the least, I do feel that many people would truly mean that: that all lengthy books are alike (every short book is short in its own way?).
    I guess what I mean is: a brilliant short novel (200) is incomparable to a brilliant long one (1000: currently reading Gaddis’ The Recognitions) but the fact of the matter is that you would have spent five times more time with it! Which can account for Big Novels’ more lasting, deeper influence — when and if read to the end…
    Or am I being naive?

  45. …which is nothing next to the feeling you get when you finish a long novel in your second language! Just did this with Vargas Llosa’s “War at the End of the World” (900+ pages in most editions) — four months and a lot of time swapping the heavy book in my hands for an even heavier dictionary. Did it affect my reading experience? One thing is that we’ll forgive long novels flaws that would kill shorter ones — subplots that go off the rails, for instance — just because percentage-wise they take up less of the book. One such unfortunate digression takes up maybe 70 pages of Varga Llosa’s novel, but that’s less than ten percent.

    But I’ve also read all of Pynchon and invariably find myself asking myself, why am I doing this? Just to say I was able to? I love the guy, but the shortcomings of his fiction, as well as his strengths, are with you on every page. Maybe the obsessiveness of these writers makes us feel we owe it to them to hear them out at whatever length. I feel I reached a limit with “Against the Day” though. I really did feel like a prisoner of the book. I had the same experience with DeLillo’s “Underworld” which had no real characters and only cerebral conceits to hold it together.

    Like the old cigarette commercial went, it’s not how long you make it, it’s how you make it long.

  46. It’s a return-on-investment issue. If I know I’m going to get something out of a novel, either through enjoyment of language or style, or connection and time spent with marvellous characters, or of insight into the human condition, or a splendid and intelligent resolution, then it’s worthwhile.

    If it’s plodding through less-than-stellar translation, consistently unpleasant characters (I wouldn’t spend time with them in life, why in fiction?) and an uncertain resolution that has only the most cerebral and thinly spun thread of existential philosophy as its rationale – then why would I?

  47. I recall a conversation with another writer about my frustration at never having the pugnacity to sit down and commit to reading Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans (nearly 1,000 pages) cover-to-cover, day after day, without taking a break with another book, a break that invariably interrupted my progress. She said her solution was to literally break the book into six sections — pulling the paperback copy apart five times — so that it appeared she was reading six individual short novels.

  48. I have to admit, I only got halfway through these comments before I threw the iPad across the room.

  49. Here is a question that’s been nagging me for as long as my entire reading career:

    When do you know enough is enough? When do you throw a book across the room and scream “YOU SUCK! I GIVE UP!”? When a book is boring or too long, what kind of justifcation do you use to keep yourself going? If you do go on, that is.

    In my experience, it usually takes about 50 pages for me to know whether the book is interesting enough to keep reading. But the idea of not being able to finish a book and the idea of giving up after only 50 pages conflicts with my reader pride. It shames me to admit that I could not finish a book because it was too, uhm, boring or too long. They just don’t seem good enough reasosn to quit a book, well, for a seroius reader at least. So out of pure vanity, I keep reading ’til the end.

    I don’t think this exactly relevant to the Stockholdm Syndrome but I believe this is another Syndrome on its own. The psychological work that goes into forcing oneself to finish a boring book is something worth investigating.

  50. Stud piece. Really speaks to the relationship between readers and the work, what a reader feels like he gets out of a piece (as opposed to what he is), and both the shared indulgence and brilliance of authors (writing for themselves as opposed to others).

  51. In college, I took a course called “The Victorian Novel.” It was basically an entire semester of literary Stockholm Syndrome.

  52. Ive never read Franzen, Gaddis, more than three Dickens novels, Cervantes or all of Ullysses. I do not do “Infinite Jest” or Updike or most P. Roth. It just doesnt grab me. The Russians did, the big ones, the unknown ones: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhovs stories; Erofeev, Rasputin, Shukshin and perhaps the best Russian writer, after Pushkin, Platonov. Andrei Platonov.
    Isaac Singer says a writer has a contract with a reader which is summed up by this sentence, “Do not get cocky”. Ulysses is cocky. It is too long, too wtf boring. DFW is too boring, too smarmy, too sure of his gifts. There are other writers who write loong and short books, short stories, whatever and , without fireworks or the current trick, relay a story, talk life and death into ones famished cells and lonely soul. The craving for …for something interesting and poignant is satisfied by Isaac Singer, Borges, Kafka, Joseph Roth, Hrabal and Hamsun.

  53. Richard L:

    Really? Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekvov, Erofeev, Rasputin, Shukshin and Platonov?

    I wonder what Singer would have said about that?

  54. I am experience this exact condition right now as I read War & Peace. Am determined to finish it, but bloody hell, it’s hard!

  55. I think you’re on to something. I just finished 2666, and I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I can’t say I wish I hadn’t read it. My favorite part was Amalfitano, and I’m glad you mentioned the episode with the pharmacist. Though wasn’t Amalfitano Chilean, not Catalan? (Though he used to teach in Catalonia.) And I thought he was a philosophy professor.

  56. This article brought back some fond memories of my reading life. I read Rememberance of Times Past in German (my native language) when I was in my early twenties, got through it but did not enjoy it. What a different experience though, during one long summer, reading the same book in English when I was in my thirties! Now in my sixties I have trouble with my eyes and I am grateful that Bolano’s 2666 and Herodotus’ The Histories were available on I couldn’t do it without the print edition though to allow me to reread sections.

  57. Just seen this. Yes, the pleasure of the reading journey is somehow multiplied by the sense of time passed. Next – more new ground. A novel by a woman writer? Edith Wharton’s ditypch ‘Hudson River Bracketed’ and ‘The Gods Arrive’, George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’, and Mary Ward’s ‘Robert Elsmere’ would take you nicely into the summer.

  58. I had a similar experience/growing spurt when I started actually finishing texts I’d picked up to read. The absolute first text I finished, after hundreds of put-back-down texts, NIGHT, by Erico Verissimo, took hold and wouldn’t let me down, and didn’t. The next, Of Human Bondage, was long, and I finished it–enough said. But, when I came to The Man Without Qualities, I couldn’t bring myself to do the work Kundera told me he’d done. So, I just let it go–let myself down, and cowardly went off in the corner to stare at myself in the reflection of a shop window. I couldn’t find the weight worth its evidential value with that one. Amazing that the first work I ever picked up to read, Don Quixote, was read fully to me by my mother, and I couldn’t finish it that first go as a younger man–but after my little experience finishing NIGHT honestly, Don Quixote went a wet lick. Quicker even than NIGHT, which is a spine gripping 140-pages.

  59. Great article, philosophical and funny at the same time. I particularly loved the Everest analogy, since I’m on the last pages of The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.

  60. It’s pretty frustrating that these novels are all by white men. Not a single woman. Not a single POC. As soon as I saw that, I bailed. I’m not going to read your sexist BS.

  61. @MattV and The Author. YES! More of “Difficult Books” please. Along with that of the redoubtable Nick Moran, the brightest, wittiest, and sharpest pen at The Millions.

  62. I rather enjoyed George Eliot’s Middlemarch and found only one other person who claimed to have finished it.

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