Covering the biggest reads in history
I post book reviews of impossibly big reads on this blog. They’re the literary heavyweights, usually on the older side. Don’t be afraid of a history lesson. A heavy classic needs only a big attitude, big ideas, and more than a little bit of profundity. These books change the way people read. Some change the world. They’re a mountain range of world literature, high peaks that few dare to climb today.
I gravitate to heavy reads because there’s a unique satisfaction that comes through the work of it. They’re a challenge. It’s part of the fun; a big commitment, big reward.
If you enjoy popular classics by Jane Austen and others, you’re a candidate for a ‘heavier’ read. I use the term ‘heavy’ to differentiate from classics that are shorter, less ponderous, and more widely-read. All classics are heavy to some degree. They endure because they share unvarnished truth. Heavy classics simply do it a bit, or a lot, more.
We admire Jane Austen for her focus on romance and true love. And yet, Austen strikes a heavy tone over the selfishness of Victorian England. Her characters may give in to dark impulses that tarnish virtue. We’re reminded of Fanny convincing John Dashwood to leave his half-sisters in poverty. Fanny’s miserly logic in Sense and Sensibility causes a reader’s blood to boil. Jane Austen was a keen social observer, and yet no one would classify her as a writer of ‘heavy’ books. Austen’s narratives are effortless, and her readers doubtlessly are thankful for it.
On the other hand, Dostoyevsky’s anti-hero from Crime and Punishment goes through extraordinary turmoil in extreme poverty. With an interest in depravation and what hardship can teach us, Dostoyevsky is a leading example of a heavy novelist. His characters face inner calamities and interpersonal disasters that are exhilarating, uncomfortable, and claustrophobic (some say farcical). Love and death are more than motifs or themes in these hands. They are in-your-face plots. Whereas Jane Austen makes poignant observations about life’s troubles, Dostoevsky stares, figuratively, at the sun.
It isn’t always a physical trouble. Characters can grapple with big ideas to alleviate their metaphysical misery. Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain involves educated people who struggle over the meaning of their existence. This style can strain the patience of untested readers. Along the way, you’re led to think about the great uncomfortable truths.
Yes, these old books aren’t for everyone. The heavy classics aren’t simply read, they’re tackled by tough-minded readers who enjoy the drama of conquering a 600-page book about gulags. (There are two more books of equal length in the series.) Is it a sense of accomplishment from finishing a long book? It’s more than that. These books hold rich stories and famous moments that some readers don’t want to miss.
I enjoy all kinds of literature, but I always have a ‘heavy’ classic going. Intense, often profound, these books go for broke. Heavy books raise our fear of death to great heights and our longing for connection and affection to unexplored depths. Heavy books draw us out of ourselves. We may step back and see a world we’ve ignored. These books are time-tested. Why they’re still around: they’re good. They connect.
Heavy books are viewed with caution due to their unusual length. However, sometimes a heavy story is not long at all. A ten-pager by Anton Chekhov can be the heaviest thing you’ve ever read. What makes a story ‘heavy’ is often the mentality of its author. Tolstoy, as the other greats, was a provocateur who ambushed our human vulnerabilities. Akin to a near-death experience, these writers offer something less committal, a ‘near-life’ experience. They lead us through extreme situations, from the safety of our reading chair, and interject ponderable parables.
“Why would anyone want this emotional workout?” You can understand the question, especially at a time when entertainment is smooth and pain-free. We call it content now. The sheer number of movies, TV shows, and video games being produced is staggering. Entertainment is expertly-crafted, some would say scientifically-balanced to satisfy our unmet needs and keep our unexplored depths at bay. We don’t have to suffer for art anymore, they say. Today’s content reassures us. It comforts and serves. Like a swig of that pink stomach medicine, it “coats, soothes, relieves.”
For lapsed literary types who gave into the content craze, we continue to be challenged by the classics. They were written for a dead culture, we tell ourselves. We know there’s more to it. We can recall from English class, dimly, these books are finely-crafted mirrors that reflect our nature. Today’s content, most of it, will be consumed and immediately forgotten. The heavy reads will outlast more topical entertainment, discoverable by those who are restless enough to climb a mountain of pages and see what’s at the top.
Whatever I find, I’ll let you know.