A couple of things happened to make me think about this topic recently. First there was a Facebook post about the 22 books people pretend they’ve read. Then a few discussions about “old-fashioned” vs. “modern” writing, especially regarding pace and plot. And finally, I actually met someone else who had read The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton, winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize.
First, let me qualify the following by saying that I’ve not yet finished Catton’s book, but I have no doubt that I will for a number of reasons.
The essential question here is whether saying something is a “fast read” is a compliment or not. The answer is not so straightforward as people on either side of the issue might think. Here’s sort of what I mean:
Fast read: the positive take
We’ve all experienced those books that we galloped through, because something grabbed us and simply would not let us go. It’s exhilarating to be so wrapped up in a book that time disappears, and before you know it you’ve reached the end. These are fabulous reading experiences, no question. I felt that way about the Hunger Games trilogy, for instance.
Fast read: the not-so-positive take
I’m sure we’ve all equally experienced a book that made us turn the pages in spite of ourselves, whose prose is so simple and undemanding that speed-reading is not out of the question, and whose author knows those tricks that prevent you from stopping when you really want to, the cliffhangers, the unanswered questions etc. I rarely read novels that fall into this category all the way through, but I’ve had to read non-fiction that takes this approach, and frankly, I find it excruciating. For a fiction example, I’d go with Dan Brown.
Slow read: the negative take
Books that plod are simply murder to get through. Prose bogged down with excessive description, or with intrusive backstory or uninteresting characters doing things that don’t matter—yuck. These are the books I usually manage not to purchase. A read of the first page or two can sort them out for me, usually. These more than any other make one wonder how they managed to get published, why someone didn’t edit them well. Sadly, they can sometimes be books by well-known authors whose editors don’t intervene very much, depending on the loyalty of the audience, and submitting to the demands of the marketplace for the next book. But that’s a whole different topic.
Slow read: the positive take
Henry James. Herman Melville. Emily Bronte. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Anthony Trollope. Hilary Mantel. Charles Frazier. Kazuo Ishiguro. I could go on. I don’t mean slow because they’re boring or inept. I mean slow because the author is taking time with something, savoring and caring about the words and the characters, luring us into the world of the novel by seducing us with the pure tactile, sensory effect of the writing. These are often the books that stay with you for a long time, perhaps in part because they took time to read.
OK, so where does The Luminaries fit in this rather over-simplified continuum? I haven’t finished it, as I said, so I can’t say for certain. But here are the characteristics I’ve discerned so far:
- Beautifully drawn characters, but without excessive descriptive passages
- An incredibly slow moving plot, but of such subtle complexity that curiosity keeps drawing me on
- The audacity to use antiquated literary conventions, to confront the past by resurrecting Hawthorne-like authorial intrusion, for instance
This book, whether I end up thinking it’s important or just a tour-de-force, challenges me as a reader. And it does so not by being obscure and intellectual, but by telling a story in a daring way. Oddly, it’s the opposite of Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which I loved. Mantel uses very modern, almost post-modern literary style to paint a perfect, evocative picture of the life-and-death intrigue in the Tudor court. Any coincidence that they both won the Booker prize?
That one word, I think, sums it up: challenge. I love that people read, and honestly, whatever they enjoy reading it’s all good. But are we losing a taste, as a society, for challenging reading? For books that take time and insist that we pay attention to details—word choice, sentence structure, form? Are the big five publishers afraid to get behind books like this, unless they’ve been anointed by receiving prestigious literary accolades?
I don’t have an answer. I’d love to hear from anyone who does. In the meantime, let me know if you’ve got some of those meaty novels that stretch the mind for me to try. I can’t guarantee I’ll like them, but I won’t give up easily.
And think twice before you mean to give a compliment to a book by calling it a “fast read.” If nothing else, I’ve definitely decided that, in and of itself, that description wouldn’t recommend a book to me.