Novellas and novels are quick and easy, and for me, only take a few days to get through. Sometimes I read so quickly I lose track, or I get to the last page before I’ve fully appreciated the nuances of the story, writing, characters. Being the slutty reader I am, if a book is under 350 pages, I am quick to move on – seduced by a new story and fresh unread words, I discard the old book (battered and bruised) to one of the teetering piles of read books around my house. I do love each one, in a way, but it’s a fleeting love that fades. My reading habits suit my personality – easily distracted, emotional, full of ideas but a lack of drive to see them through – so I like it this way.
But every ten or twenty books (is that how I measure time? In books – in words and ink and paper?) I pick up a tome. And I obsess. A book that is a challenge, that demands something from me, that takes me a week or two to finish. A book that I spend hours upon hours with, that I turn down social engagements for, that entrances me, that I fall for.
I will take the tome with me wherever I go, so its cover is ruined, its spine cracked and broken, and its pages soft with wear.
So when it ends, I am broken. The hangover begins. I mope about, cry over nothing, try other books (only to discard them after a few pages), I endlessly scroll through the deep web (looking for?), obsess over tumblr analysis of said book, stay awake at night reliving the pages.
It is the best kind of heartbreak.
So, here is my list of tomes. And although I know nothing but time will heal the heartbreak, I have provided a remedy for each one – not a cure, but a balm to ease the pain. Read with caution, and fall in love.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (848 pages): My most recent. I spent hours a day reading this beauty of a book. Like a full moon wanes, so does The Luminaries – each chapter is half the length of the previous one, with links to the stars and the signs within. A perfect mystery set during the New Zealand goldrush, it made me homesick for my wild and beautiful home at the end of the world.
“he had travelled every inch of the west coast, on foot, by cart, on horseback, and by canoe. he could picture the entire length of it, as though upon a richly illustrated map: in the far north, mohikinui and karamea, where the mosses were fat and damp, where the leaves were waxy, where the bush was an earthy smelling tangle, where the nikau fronds, shed from the trunks of the palms, lay upon the ground as huge and heavy as the flukes of whales; further south, the bronze lacquer of the taramakau, the crenulated towers at punakaiki, the marshy flats north of hokitika, always crawling with the smoky mist of not-quite-rain; then the cradled lakes, then the silent valleys, thick with green; then the twisting flanks of the glaciers, rippled blue and grey; then the comb of the high alps; then, at last okahu and mahitahi in the far south – wide, shingled beaches littered with the bones of mighty trees, where the surf was a ceaseless battery, and the wind a ceaseless roar.”
Remedy: watch Jane Campion’s exquisite series Top of The Lake, embark on some self directed astrological research, take a trip to New Zealand, prop the book close to your bed so you can always see that beautiful moon girl staring out at you.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (720 pages): a story that follows four best friends as they navigate life after college in New York. This book will rip you to shreds. It explores questions of friendship, pain, suicide, family, and abuse and talks of how deeply complicated human nature is. You will consider the time you spent reading this book a little life and at its end you will simultaneously hate it and love it.
“Relationships never provide you with everything. They provide you with some things. You take all the things you want from a person — sexual chemistry, let’s say, or good conversation, or financial support, or intellectual compatibility, or niceness, or loyalty — and you get to pick three of those things. The rest you have to look for elsewhere. It’s only in the movies that you find someone who gives you all those things. But this isn’t the movies. In the real world, you have to identify which three qualities you want to spend the rest of your life with, and then you look for those qualities in another person. That’s real life. Don’t you see it’s a trap? If you keep trying to find everything, you’ll wind up with nothing.”
Remedy: trawl the instagram dedicated to this book, call all your friends and tell them you love them, have an internet rant about how this book should have won the booker, cry, question the meaning of life.
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (615 pages): cats and libraries and weird sex and a house in the woods. Murakami is one of my favourite authors and Kafka was my introduction into his work. As a fifteen year old I felt like I had discovered a whole new world of literature and delighted in how fucked up and brilliant it was.
“Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back. That’s part of what it means to be alive. But inside our heads – at least that’s where I imagine it – there’s a little room where we store those memories. A room like the stacks in this library. And to understand the workings of our own heart we have to keep on making new reference cards. We have to dust things off every once in awhile, let in fresh air, change the water in the flower vases. In other words, you’ll live forever in your own private library.”
Remedy: drink whiskey, spend a week alone at a cabin in the woods, read all of his other work, listen to classical music, seek out obscure libraries, get a cat.
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt (675 pages): set during the last days of magic in England – the years before the first world war ravaged its history forever. This tome begins with a boy living in a museum, and follows a family mothered by a children’s author. For each of her children, Olive Wellwood writes a never ending story for them, one that is not published. Rich with intertextuality (that I am not smart enough to grasp just yet) and musings on art and culture, the novel questions the impact genius and creativity have on family and love.
“The children mingled with the adults, and spoke and were spoken to. Children in these families, at the end of the nineteenth century, were different from children before or after. They were neither dolls nor miniature adults. They were not hidden away in nurseries, but present at family meals, where their developing characters were taken seriously and rationally discussed, over supper or during long country walks. And yet, at the same time, the children in this world had their own separate, largely independent lives, as children. They roamed the woods and fields, built hiding-places and climbed trees, hunted, fished, rode ponies and bicycles, with no other company than that of other children.”
Remedy: visit the V&A in London, take up pottery, frolic in the English countryside, read Peter Pan, drink tea, sleep.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (771 pages): Theo Deckker – orphan, lost soul, fucked up teenager, art thief, drug addict. You will love and hate Theo, but you will also fall in love with New York and the magic of the world of antiques. The third time I read this book (seems to be an annual thing) I finished it in Amsterdam, where the story begins and ends, and the moody Winter canals, shrouded in fog made it all too real.
“I look at the blanked-out faces of the other passengers–hoisting their briefcases, their backpacks, shuffling to disembark–and I think of what Hobie said: beauty alters the grain of reality. And I keep thinking too of the more conventional wisdom: namely, that the pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, that beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful.
Only what is that thing? Why am I made the way I am? Why do I care about all the wrong things, and nothing at all for the right ones? Or, to tip it another way: how can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is illusion, and yet–for me, anyway–all that’s worth living for lies in that charm?
A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.
Because–isn’t it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture–? From William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mister Rogers, it’s a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: “Be yourself.” “Follow your heart.”
Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted–? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight toward a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?…If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or…is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?”
Remedy: read its dark and brooding older sibling – The Secret History, obsess over the elusiveness of Donna Tartt, go antique shopping, visit The Goldfinch (currently at the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague), buy expensive clothes, drink black coffee.