No, I’m not talking about the Stranger Blog, although I’m sure it’s very nice. I’m talking about the lengthy, challenging book that you slog through, sometimes grimly determined to reach the end whether you like it or not. The slog is out of fashion. The internet is littered with guides for determining when to give up on a book; it’s coated in essays justifying the practice. My own writing partner, a librarian, rolls her eyes at me when I complain that I haven’t read books that have been recommended to me because I am still slogging through the same dry, heavy tome I was reading when we checked in months before. She subscribes to the following popular argument (and it is a good one):
The world is so full of wonderful, enjoyable books that even if you gave up all other pursuits but reading, there would still not be enough time to read them all. Therefore, every hour spent slogging through a book is an hour forever lost – an hour that could have been spent reading a different book, one that grants pure, unadulterated joy and satisfaction. In a finite life, there is no time to waste on any but the most fulfilling books.
Even so, my reading history is filled with slogs, and I have no intention of giving up the practice, much as it pains me to think of all the unread books. Last night I finished Part Two of Book Three in the epic fantasy series Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams. I found much to love in each book in the series. But many hundreds of pages in the series were devoted to characters’ Freudian wandering through underground tunnels. I began the series in the summer of 2011. When I joined Twitter in August of that year, my very first tweet was a reference to the climax of the first book, The Dragonbone Chair.
I read the second book after the New Year, then rested on the series until winter of 2013. I was so disheartened that book 3 was actually two separate books, I didn’t pick up the final installment until this fall. The last few hundred pages felt like the last set of ten in a Pilates teaser, but I wouldn’t trade the three thousand or so pages in the series for any number of other, easier books I might have read in the time. Mooncalf Simon is now as real to me as many people I’ve met in the flesh. In a recent subterranean adventure of my own, I stared at the Kubla Khan rock formation in the Throne Room of Kartchner Caverns and saw the Great Tree under the Hayholt.
King Olaf replies, “A great pity it is that such brave slaughtering fellows do not believe in Christ their Creator.”
You know what else was a slog? Heimskringla. I started Snorri Sturluson’s collection of stories about the medieval Norwegian kings before my daughter (now in first grade) was born, and finished it during spring break of 2015. I read it in tiny pieces, one anecdote at a time in between other books. Even so, I eventually got lost in the pattern of Olaf of Norway fighting Harald of Sweden, whose son Olaf took up the fight against Olaf’s successor Harald. I took a couple years off, and when I came back to it, couldn’t remember anything I read before. But I’m still damn proud to have finished it. I might be the only person without a degree in Scandinavian history who has ever read that book, and even though I will never untangle the genealogy, I will smile in recognition instead of surprise at all sorts of historical detail revealed in museum exhibits about the Viking age. Huge chunks of Heimskringla are as interesting as the begats of the Bible, but the slogging was often rewarded with tweetable nuggets of wry humor and irony or adventure stories worthy of an epic fantasy novel or a *cough* History Channel drama.
I’m working my way through the Complete Works of Jules Verne right now (as I have been for about three years). Everyone is familiar with the best passages of Verne – the battle with the Kraken, the submarine dragged down in the whirlpool. Most of Verne’s best passages are in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but few people remember that book has an entire chapter dedicated to enumerating the taxonomy of the nautilus and its underwater relatives. An entire chapter of Victorian-era phenotypic taxonomy that, if it has not been completely discredited in the century that followed, it is only because no scientist found the group sufficiently interesting to study. And that is Verne’s best work. Verne was a veritable Admiral Peary of speculative fiction. He made two attempts to reach the moon, and criss-crossed Africa using a variety of methods.
The literary quality of his output was weak at best but there is so much to learn from slogging through his Victorian pedantry. The modern writer can take so many lessons about how and how not to embed actual knowledge in fiction. Of course, Andy Weir provides a more palatable lesson on that topic, but then you miss out on the history. Verne’s thinly disguised science lessons for youth may be nearly unreadable today, but they were cutting edge in his day. Those with an interest in history get a well-researched summary of human knowledge to the point of Verne’s writing, and I still find value in imagining how Voyages Extraordinaires must have felt for the generations of young people who were inspired to pursue science – and art – by those fictional adventures.
If you follow me on Goodreads, you will see that I have been reading Guide to Chinese Poetry and Medieval Passion Plays for nearly 10 years. I might never get back to them, but I won’t delete them. Because as a rule, I don’t give up on books. There is the rare genuinely bad book that I can toss without guilt, but I know the satisfaction of slogging through to the end. When a book is really long, the language obsolete, the subject matter distant and dry, I am, like the bodybuilder, willing to suffer through the pain and hardship. I might be missing out on some fun, but I’ve got killer reading abs.