Earlier this week I finished reading The Balkan Trilogy, by Olivia Manning, three books set in Bucharest and Athens at the start of World War II. I read the first book, The Great Fortune, several months ago, took a breather, and then powered through the next two, The Spoilt City and Friends and Heroes. Still to come is Manning’s follow-up trilogy that continues the story of a married couple repatriated to Egypt, The Levantine Trilogy.
I’ll need a break after the one-volume edition, which ran 924 pages. That’s a long book, the longest I’ve read in years. I struggled to get through it, to find the time in between the Internet flotsam and jetsam that too much clutters my vision.
I miss the days of what I call the long long read, books that grabbed me and ran on and on free of distractions. What were they?
Looking back, many had a classical or historical theme. In junior high school, probably 1971, I read The Winds of War by Herman Wouk, who first came to my attention when I read a paperback version of The Caine Mutiny, complete with illustrations from the movie. In high school, the great long long read was The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Gone with the Wind figured in, also, along with seeing the movie in one of its periodic re-releases. College found my nose stuck in Bleak House by Charles Dickens and The Brother Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Bleak House made me a confirmed Dickens fan and I went on, post-college to read many of his books, all of them doorstoppers in size. I tried Atlas Shrugged at one point but just couldn’t get going, although I still have it. Stephen King’s enormous The Stand also gripped me, with some truly haunting scenes of social chaos and survival. I even watched the mini-series with Molly Ringwald.
My literary wanderings continued with two 19th century books always linked in my mind: Les Miserables and Moby-Dick. Moby-Dick especially impressed me with passages of startlingly modern sound, while Les Miserables played nightly on Broadway, providing constant encouragement to read the book and then see the play. I didn’t see the play until I enjoyed a New Jersey high school production 30 years after I read the book.
For true poundage and long Russian earnestness, nothing can top my early 1990s excursion into Life and Fate by Soviet war correspondent Vasily Grossman, clocking in at 896 pages in the paperback. I needed two or three rounds of reading to finish this epic of World War II, but it was worth it. The hardcover was enormous and I doubt I could even get it in the backpack I use for my daily train commute.
More sprightly, if you can use that term, was the Children of the Arbat trilogy by fellow Russian writer Anatol Rybakov, consisting of the novels Children of the Arbat (685 pages), Fear (686 pages), and Dust and Ashes (473 pages). Chronicling a decade of life in Stalinist Russia from 1933 to World War II, the trilogy entranced me with is mix of historical and fictional characters
Then there were the three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, which I flew through in about a month in the early 1980s.
Which brings me back to The Balkan Trilogy, another war epic. I didn’t read it for length but because the issues and setting grabbed me enough for me to devote considerable time to crunching through the volume. The sense of getting lost in a work, of shutting out the world, still happens, albeit with somewhat shorter works, like, to name some off the top of my head, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Old Man’s War, The Lincoln Lawyer. I can still find books I like a lot and even write about, but I look for the monumental reads that demand that time and distraction stop and, in the words of Arthur Miller in The Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid.”
In the Internet era, reading a long long book takes dedication, a willingness to get lost and forget the distractions that lurk at screen and phone. That’s not easy. I know. Every time I take a swing through my favorite sites, I’m losing time I could spend on books. Short books, long books and the books I always plan to write. My daily commute, while it requires me to wake up at 5:30 a.m., actually is a treat for me because it gives me a solid hour to read whatever I want free from laptop and desktop, and my smartphone doesn’t count for much. If I can stay awake on the train–always an open question–then I can make some progress, especially if I have a page-turner.
On to the next book.