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In Defense of Longness

PUBLISHED: April 27, 2009

The cover of the book, "A Suitable Boy."

It was a bit more than three months ago that I picked Vikram Seth’s novel A Suitable Boy out of my to-read pile, and I just recently passed the book’s halfway mark. Weighing in at 1,349 tightly-printed pages (591,552 words, according to Wikipedia) this sprawling, multi-layered depiction of post-Independence India is one of the longest single volume novels ever published in English. It is not the best book I have ever read, far from it, and I admit that I have I have been tempted more than once to put it down, to move onto the next book in the pile. But as I passed the halfway mark, I realized that I have rather enjoyed the process of reading A Suitable Boy, not in spite of its length, but because of it. I relish the chance each night to stretch out and immerse myself in this unfamiliar world, to read just for the sake of reading.

In a world that fetishizes speed, a world in which Twitter tops the news cycle and literary critics opine that “The death of the novel is yesterday’s news. The death of print may be tomorrow’s headline. But the great American short story is still being written,” the act of reading such a long book, of returning again and again to the same hefty tome, feels almost perverse. Why would I spend my leisure time hunched over A Suitable Boy when I could be reading any number of shorter novels or short story collections, when I could be watching Top Chef or updating my Facebook status or looking at porn on the internet? Who has time to read anything anymore, let alone an 1,400 page novel? After a long day at work and soccer practice and pilates who wants to hack into the dense thicket of a seemingly interminable book? In a world where the ethos is, as University of Virgina English professor Mark Edmundson wrote, to “skate fast over the surfaces of life and cover all the extended space you can,” the long novel is a ponderous brontosaurus with its head in the canopy, lazily chomping leaves while an army of swift moving, razor-clawed creatures are building a new civilization its feet. It is a relic, teetering on the edge of extinction.

But perhaps longness is what we need most these days. At the end of a day filled with text messages and mass emails, blog posts, instant messages, and YouTube videos, after all the pixels have disappeared into the ether, perhaps there is something to be said for settling in with a lengthy and time-consuming novel. It doesn’t have to be A Suitable Boy. There are dozens of doorstoppers out there to choose from, from The Kindly Ones to Infinite Jest or War and Peace, Remembrance of Things Past, A Dance to the Music of Time, Clarissa, The Man Without Qualities, Tokugawa Ieyasu, or Dream of the Red Chamber.

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