Classic Books · The Reading Life

What I learned from reading a big book

Earlier this week, I wrote about a big book that I doubt I will ever read cover to cover, in the process arguing, essentially, so what? Since I don’t want to give the impressive that I believe it’s always okay to abandon or only partially read big books, today, I want to argue for reading them all the way through.

David Copperfield photo
Reading the last 100 pages, I kept thinking about how much I was going to miss this book.

When I read David Copperfield last year, it became the longest book I’d read in … longer than I can rightly remember, actually. In fact, I spent a long while avoiding big books due to having once taken on a reading challenge to read 100 books in one year. That number got stuck in my head as the sign of a successful year of reading. Until a new challenge came into my life: My dear friend Jessica asked me to do the Gilmore Girls Reading Challenge, and I saw David Copperfield on the list. A Charles Dickens novel I’d never read it. A Charles Dickens novel upwards of 900 pages, depending on your edition. It took me a while to work up the will to read it. After I did, I realized the experience gave me more than just the pleasure of ticking a title off my to-be-read list.

Here are a few of the things I learned about the value of reading big books, from the first page to the last:

Big books encourage patience. I love nothing more than to rip through a book, to stay in and up all night fully immersed and consumed. This is fairly easily accomplished with a 150-200-page book. Even 300 pages may be polished off in a day or two. Not so with a very big book. Life inevitably intervenes. To get through 900 plus pages, I had to learn to put the book down and get on with with my day. I had to learn, in other words, to delay gratification, a pretty handy life skill when it comes to it.

Big books encourage savoring. Patience breeds savoring. Since reading David Copperfield, I’ve noticed I can appreciate stretching a reading experience out instead of rushing through a story to get to the end. Another way of saying this: Reading a big book reminded me to enjoy the present moment without being so focused on what comes next. It reminded me to enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

Big books develop the almighty attention span. Truth is, I spend most of my waking hours reading: student work, articles I’m editing, social media posts. When I think about it, it’s a little staggering how much text I read in a given day. The thing is, though, I’m not reading long, sustained narratives. I’m reading short pieces anywhere from 140 characters to about 1,000 words. Reading a close-to 1,000-page book, on the other hand, challenged me to retain complicated, interwoven story lines and a long cast of characters. It challenged me to dig deep to make connections and draw inferences by relying on my memory … Copious notes helped too. Funny enough, I remember David Copperfield as well as, if not better than, the quick reads I charged through like a bull down the streets of Pamplona.

Big books require perseverance. When something comes quickly or easily, I don’t have to figure out how to stick with it, even when things get really, really hard. Having to delay gratification, to work hard at making sense of something over a long period of time – these help cultivate stick-to-it-ive-ness, also know as perseverance. Life is bound to get hard at times. Count on it! David Copperfield challenged me to power through the hard parts, even when those hard parts last for 200 pages.

What i learned from reading a big bookBig books are a reminder that more isn’t better. It’s a bit ironic, really, given that big books are, themselves, more. Ah, I do love paradox! At any rate, have I mentioned it took me a month to read David Copperfield? In case it’s not obvious, this means I devoted a whole month to only one book. Usually, I read anywhere from six to ten books per month and delight in watching my tally of read books increase. But that warm feeling of accomplishment also gives me pause. I could read 50 books in a month if I were to, say, read only children’s picture books. They might be great books, or they might not. My point is, reading a big book reminded me that I want to care less about how many books I’ve read and more about reading books that will entertain, inspire, challenge, and instruct me, whatever length they may be.

That’s about all I can think of for now. How about you? Thoughts on the experience of reading big books?

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