Covering the biggest reads in history
I post book reviews of impossibly big reads on this blog. They’re the literary heavyweights, on the older side. Don’t be afraid of a history lesson. A heavy classic book needs only a big attitude, big ideas, and more than a little bit of profundity. These books change the way people read. Some have changed the world.
Today? These books are well-known but not popular. Everyone’s heard of some of them, like a trivia answer.
It’s understandable why people stay away from long, heavy reads. Who has the time? Actually, everyone. Have you seen how many hours the average person streams Netflix? Statistics vary from 30 minutes a day up to 2 hours… enough time to read a long book.
These books change the way people read. Some have changed the world.
There’s nothing wrong with short books. Kafka and Camus wrote slim books that will make your head spin. With a longer book, an author has the space to build a world. Of course, the book needs to be worth your time. It’s why I like time-tested classics. Something in these books has inspired every generation since they were written.
If you enjoy popular classic authors like Jane Austen, you’re a candidate for a ‘heavier’ read. It’s usually longer than 400 pages, and the characters will think about things, and observe things, as much as they do things. These books drive impatient readers crazy.
All classic books are heavy to some degree. Books achieve the status of a classic because they share a time-honored emotional truth. Heavy books go deeper, is all.
Jane Austen, for example, is known for mannered romances. And yet, she strikes a critical tone over the selfishness of Victorian England. That’s a little bit heavy. Her characters are tempted by dark impulses that tarnish their virtue. We know virtue is the most prized possession of a Jane Austen heroine. That’s heavy. And yet, Jane Austen stops short of being a writer of ‘heavy’ books. Her characters live in a world of doing. Her narratives are effortless and charming. Her readers doubtlessly are thankful for it.
You’re asked to consider the annoying “why” questions…
Dostoyevsky fits all the ‘heavy’ writer criteria. He has an interest in what depravation and hardship can teach us, which is about as heavy as you can get. His characters don’t have normal problems. Instead, they face inner calamities and interpersonal disasters that are uncomfortable, claustrophobic, and even farcical. Jane Austen characters face worst-case scenarios. Dostoevsky characters actually go through worst-case scenarios.
Heavy books often explore the life of the mind. Characters grapple with big ideas to alleviate their metaphysical misery. Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain involves educated people who struggle over the meaning of things. You’re asked consider the annoying “why” questions which, when you think about them, are actually important.
Heavy classics aren’t read passively. Tough-minded literature fans enjoy tackling a 600-page book about gulags. (And knowing there are two more books in the series.) Is it simply a sense of accomplishment thing for finishing a long book? It is bragging rights, literary weight-lifting?
It’s more than that. These books have rich stories, famous moments that some readers don’t want to miss. If they’ve tried to film a heavy book, you know the story is worth it
I don’t read heavy books exclusively, but I’ll have one in the rotation. And why not? These books go for broke. They draw us out of ourselves. We step back and see the world differently. We know they’re still around because they deliver. They connect.
These books have rich stories, famous moments that some readers don’t want to miss.
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 was a sneaky provocateur who ambushed our human vulnerabilities. Tolstoy entertains his readers partly by testing them in unique, psychological ways.
“Why would anyone want an emotional workout from a book?” Entertainment today is expertly crafted, some would say scientifically balanced to satisfy our unmet needs and keep the unexplored depths at bay. We don’t have to suffer for art anymore, they say. Today’s media content reassures us, comforts, and serves. Like a swig of that pink stomach medicine, it “coats, soothes, relieves.”
There’s more to art than that. We recall from high school English class, books can be finely crafted mirrors that reflect our human nature. Today’s content will be consumed. Heavy reads refuse the book-as-food analogy. They demand to be read and discovered.
This post first appeared at The Writing Thing Press.