By Steve Donoghue
A long time ago, I spent the whole of a hot, humid summer carrying around a fat Penguin Classics paperback of the Rosemary Edmonds translation of “War and Peace.” It was a brick of a thing, 1500 pages and change, and around Memorial Day of that year I’d decided I wasn’t merely going to read the book, I was going to live with it and breathe in its atmosphere at virtually every available moment (at least, the moments that weren’t given over to my dogs, who neither knew nor cared who Tolstoy was).
Those old Penguin Classics paperbacks could take a surprising amount of punishment. They were famous for their floppy binding – it was often easily possible to lay one on a table and have it sit completely flat regardless of what page-break you chose. My “War and Peace” got caught in two sudden rainstorms, sat in broiling sunlight for more than a few afternoons, got battered going in and out of my shoulder bag, and even survived a cursory chewing by a curious beagle (we locked eyes across the room, and I said, “Don’t you DARE” – and for once, he listened and dropped it instead of shredding it gleefully in front of me), all while still being comfortably intact and readable.
It was a counterintuitive decision for me, since I’m a fairly fast reader. I very much don’t have the odd luxury of living with the book I’m reading, since I’m usually in one end of it and out the other in the course of a day and then on to the next one. I’d been repeatedly assured that “War and Peace” would only yield its glories to a slow, serious read-through (and this is 100% true), so I decided that while I was doing my usual daily reading, right alongside that I’d be doing this slow, methodical reading of “War and Peace.”
So although I ended up loving the experience, it was also distinctly strange. Living with the book like that was the perfect way to absorb an inner pacing much closer to the inner pacing Tolstoy himself must have felt while writing it – it honestly did end up making me feel like I was GETTING the book on levels I might have missed if I’d flown through it. And unlike most of the other books I read, that old Penguin volume will now always be associated in my mind with dozens of memories – the places where I read it, the moments, the people, even the songs in the background. It was an all-encompassing thing.
And I had a reading experience just recently that made me wonder if in addition to being all-encompassing, it was also a largely non-reproducible one, at least in the present century.
I went to a library book sale, and you know how it is at library book sales: you stop being a careful, discriminating shopper and turn into a baleen whale, just roving around with your mouth wide open, scooping up everything in your path. As a result, when I was back home and coming out of the book sale daze, I realized I’d acquired yet another copy of Ken Follett’s “The Pillars of the Earth.”
Don’t get me wrong: it’s a terrific novel, pretty much a quintessential example of how to do the big, sprawling historical fiction saga for a popular audience. Since everybody’s read the thing, of course you already know the story: Follett uses dozens of narrative threads in order to tell the story of the 12th-century construction of a glorious English cathedral, and as theoretical and dull as that description might sound, the book simply soars in its sheer readability.
It’s a very different kind of readability than anything Tolstoy is attempting. There’s less line-by-line artistry (of course), but there’s also virtually none of Tolstoy’s propensity for brooding digressions and windy irrelevancies. Follett was a bestselling author before he put all his chips on the table to gamble with a 1000-page historical drama centering on architecture; he was already a past master of crafting catchy dialogue and perfectly-paced scenes.
And of course he wasn’t the first author of a gigantic historical potboiler that went on to become a huge bestseller (every decade has a “Gone with the Wind,” after all). That’s not where the non-reproducible part comes in. No, the problem with this latest version of “The Pillars of the Earth” was that I snatched up a little mass market paperback, the same form factor as that old Penguin “War and Peace.” But only the form factor was the same: the newer paperback was catastrophically poorly made.
I tried the same reading experiment with “The Pillars of the Earth” that I had with “War and Peace”: I carried it around with me practically everywhere and tried my best to read it immersively, piecemeal, lovingly.
But it didn’t love me back. Instead, it started chipping, folding, flaking, and creaking with the alarming certainty that if I kept it up past page 500, the thing would split in half like the Titanic. I eventually had to lay the thing aside and admit it’s just not as well-made as that old Penguin paperback.
I’ll take up “The Pillars of the Earth” as an e-book. That’ll solve the problem.