When I started reading Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, a 736-page monster weighing more than my cat and my friend’s two chihuahuas combined, I envisioned writing a sanctimonious post a week or so later extolling the virtues of the long novel. “Don’t be afraid of the big novels,” I imagined myself saying, “It’s a way to hone your focus and challenge your mind.”
Well, it’s been a week.
I am on page 327.
This is what that looks like:
(I know, I don’t use bookmarks: maybe I’m the real monster here)
Here’s the thing: despite my struggle, I’m enjoying the read. It’s great to get to zoom out and see the bigger picture of a changing world. The novel follows the descendants of two French trappers in the New World from the 16th century all the way to the 21st, as the changing northern wilderness shapes– and is shaped by– them. Reading it is a little like playing god: I know I’ll outlive these characters (each generation doesn’t get more than 100 pages, since there’s so much time to cover), but I can’t help but feel a deep sense of attachment. I’ve seen where they’re coming from, and I’ll soon find out what mark they made on their world. There’s no way a smaller book could accomplish such breadth and depth, and it’s a refreshing change from the books I’ve read recently that felt too concerned with the minutiae of the characters’ mid-twenties (as a twenty-something myself, I am already very aware that it is practically all minutiae).
I think I’ve discovered, then, why reading this feels like slogging through a swamp, regardless of how much I enjoy the book itself: I’ve been treating this like a project. I decided I wouldn’t read anything else until I finished it (this coming from an extreme polyamoreader), a resolution which caused me to spend half a weekend avoiding reading altogether until I caved on Saturday night at 11 pm and consumed This Is Where It Ends in 2 hours (side note: that book is available on loan to all Overdrive users the last half of October 2016 as part of their annual Big Library Read).
I don’t think any book deserves that kind of pressure, even a wonderful one like Barkskins.
One of the last times I read my way through a truly big book was in the spring of 2014. I spent more than a month with Andrew Solomon’s Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, And The Search For Identity, reading it at night, in bed, the book-light I’d gotten for Christmas that year crimping the back. It’s almost 1,000 pages, and it seems like a dense topic– the ways in which disabilities, sexual orientation, mental health issues, and lifestyle choices can shape the relationship children have to their parents– but it was driven by carefully written case studies and suffused with such warmth and empathy that I don’t remember having any trouble finishing it. But I took my time with it, even leaving it at home for a week when I went on vacation, trusting that it would still be compelling when I came home.
In fact, I think spacing out my reading is useful. Memories of the books I read in one feverish night often slip away from me within a few weeks, but I can still remember cases, ideas, and arguments from Solomon’s book more than two years later. I’m not sure that I was doing myself any favors by forcing myself to focus all my attention on Barkskins. If it had happened naturally, if I’d found myself unable to put the book down, then sure, it would have made sense. But it’s a little crazy to demand of myself that I read it right away, just because it’s big and important, especially since it’s not for a class or a book club or a review– it’s just for me.
I’ve been away from Barkskins for a few days, and when I picked it up off my nightstand to write this, I saw the next section’s title– “Fortune’s a right whore”– and felt the urge to dive in again. Sometimes I forget that books aren’t always meant to be read in one or two or even three sittings; some books require more time, more energy, and a little more faith that it will all pay off in the end.