We all have at least one or two on our bookshelf: That massive book that’s been there for years, the one you bought at a used bookstore on a whim. Maybe it’s War and Peace or Middlemarch. Maybe it’s something more contemporary like Infinite Jest or The Goldfinch. No matter the title, those books act not only as dust collectors, but as a reminder of your shame. You want to be the kind of person who can tackle those long books, but you just haven’t gotten around to actually being that person.
I’m here to tell you that not only can you do it, you should do it. Reading a long novel—I’m talking the ones that are a physical pain to lug around, that clock in well over 600 pages and leave you wondering how anyone could ever write so many damn words—is not only an immense pleasure, but it’s an experience that can teach us a lot about how to handle other things in our life.
Art in general, or at least the best, most challenging art, can be a transformative experience. It can allow us to explore feelings and perspectives outside of our own experience, or help us clarify our own messy emotions. But I’m not simply talking about the transformative effects of the work you’re reading—I mean the inherent lessons that comes with the act of reading itself.
It’s not exactly revelatory to say that our lives are busier than ever. Sure, they’re easier in some ways—I have no interest in dying of dysentery on the Oregon Trail—but we’re also living our lives in a way that’s increasingly scheduled, connected and micromanaged. “Downtime” is an illusion, a hazy figure promised by capitalism, the light at the end of the work week. But the work week never seems to end, and, as Anne Helen Petersen recently laid out, the burnout becomes very real. If there’s hardly any time for even the basics of day-to-day life, how can there possibly be any time for doing the things we love, for days that allow us room to create, to get outside and hike, to finally hit up that kickboxing class we’ve been talking about for weeks?
Reading a long novel can teach us a lot about how to handle the burnout of day-to-day life while offering ways to correct our behavior. Diving into a book that you know is going to take months to read is a perfect antidote to our current culture of immediate pleasure and satisfaction. There’s no quick dopamine hit when you first dive into a long, complex book. Although, “a screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now” is about as close as you’ll get to ecstasy on a first page. (Thank you, Thomas Pynchon for Gravity’s Rainbow.) Rather, a long novel asks us to sit through a lot of emotions. There will certainly be moments of joy and fascination across 800+ pages, but there’s also going to be a lot of something bordering on boredom. Reading a book so dense and long isn’t easy, but that’s kind of the point. In a world where everything, including people, is valued based on efficiency, there’s something beautiful about a task that can’t be finished in a single sitting, or immediately shared across social media.
Getting through a big book in its entirety—which takes persistence, patience, and a fair amount of dedicated time alone—can teach us to be more appreciative of the uncomfortable moments, while also showing us that all the discomfort does come to an end. Sure, you may be stuck on page 375 of Don Quixote, but who knows what immense literary pleasures and keen emotional insights await you on page 500.
More often than not, self-help books and blogs tells us that we need to deal with our burnout and lack of time by simply cutting things out of our lives. Not enjoying that calligraphy course you signed up for? Just drop it. Does going out to see friends seem like too much work? Just stay home and watch Friends for the umpteenth time. Is this long book too challenging? Life’s too short, just throw it back on the shelf and let it impress your friends while also hoping they never ask if you’ve actually read it. In the name of decluttering our own lives, we end up creating a mindset where everything is disposable, where anything that’s difficult or challenging isn’t worth the effort, which leads us right back to our phones and the instant, mindless “pleasures” of scrolling through social media.
It’s a shame, because there’s so much to take away from reading those really, really long books, or doing anything that takes a sustained, focused, multi-day/week/month effort. We can learn patience and perseverance. We can learn to quiet our minds and focus on a single task, an opportunity that’s rare during our work day. We can learn to embrace times of tedium and find the hushed beauty in those moments. All it takes is one very long book, and a little bit of effort. It’s more than worth it.