Binging on Books
You hear a lot about folks binging on TV shows. Staying up way too late and watching episode after episode in a relentless 50-minute cycle. I have done it myself. And then there is the darker side of the verb concerned with stuffing things down your throat, whether liquid or solid. That’s a story for another day. But you never hear about binge reading. Maybe nobody is reading. Maybe reading is considered somehow more morally sound so that the tinge of binging does not adhere.
But the phenomena exists. We all seek comfort in troubled times. Readers too need the calming effects of a book that is familiar, soothing, not particularly difficult, and if possible, from a genre that is generally considered less serious such as mystery or sci-fi. It doesn’t hurt to have read it before so that a pleasant nostalgia permeates the flavor as well. Length is important. A 250-page memoirish novel by a contemporary 20 something won’t work. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Something hefty is needed. What Vikram Seth describing his own long novel, A Suitable Boy, called a wrist breaker. Charmingly he begged the readers forgiveness for writing such a physically heavy book. Personally, if it’s less than a thousand pages it’s not really a good candidate for binging. You need the time for the characters to become overly familiar.
I love long multi volume books. For me, the Memoirs of Casanova at over 4,000 pages holds the record. Making Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past seem a casual beach read. Leading into the current COVID world I had recently read Olivia Manning’s relatively short Levant trilogy as well as the more substantial Your Face Tomorrow trilogy by Javier Maria. But because of their literary values and the fact that I read them before the virus arrived, they don’t fall into the binge reading category. Simply normal obsessive reading.
Once I decided that I needed a binge read there were only a few books in the house that qualified. The library was closed so I was thrown on my own resources. I am embarrassed to admit how many times I have read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings cycle. The first time was at sixteen and most recently was probably a decade ago. I have frequently found solace in its pages. So, I once again began the journey with Frodo and the fellowship. At first, I was put off by its clumsy, stuffy, and curiously asexual prose, but soon enough I was under the tale’s spell once again and finished what I am sure will be my final reading of this classic.
The next escape was a bit like binging on Grand Cru Champagne. I decided rereading Tolstoy’s War and Peace would be a great place to hide from reality for a while. Tolstoy’s novels are incomparable. After reading any of them one often wonders why anyone else would bother to write another novel — they are that perfect! My first time through this, more than ten years ago, I was swept away by the narrative flow. It just gallops along and is one of the easiest reads of the long novels. But this time it was the characters who overwhelmed me. Over the course of the weeks of reading they became my intimates. I am not exaggerating when I say that I lay awake at night worrying about what would become of Natasha, even though I already knew she would be fine. Such is Tolstoy’s genius. You feel compelled to believe in the humanity of his creations, and while much removed in time, space, and reality from the present day they are vivid and sympathetic to an uncanny degree. It turned out that it was just what I needed at this time when I am deprived of the company of my friends — to spend hours and hours in the splendid company of Tolstoy’s characters and his huge heart and soul.