MOST people read because they enjoy it. Well-balanced people. A minority read obsessively, as if they want to earn a diploma for it in heaven or somewhere around there.
If I were in the first group, I wouldn't have a story. The problem is, I suffer from literary FOMO. My obsession is to devour as many of the great books as possible — the classics, the famous ones, the award-winners, the acclaimed, the recommended. If I give up on one of them, I hear Marianne Faithfull: “I feel guilt, though I know I’ve done no wrong, I feel guilt."
To make matters worse, a spreadsheet was recently shared on the internet showing how many books you can still fit into your remaining years. Don't look it up, it's shocking.
Meanwhile, my brain is frozen like an old computer on page 700 of The Books of Jacob by the Polish Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk. Her masterpiece, as they call it, is based on the life of a Polish Jew who declared in the 18th century that he is the third Messiah and the end is near. Time to break all the rules, he proclaimed, especially the one that says you may not covet your neighbour's wife.
Compassion and humour are a winning combination as far as I'm concerned. There is plenty of both in Tokarczuk's most accessible novel, Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, a murder story with an unforgettable main character who unleashes her inner eco-terrorist on local trophy hunters.
In The Books of Jacob, she vividly describes historical Poland in such a way that you can hear and smell it. But after weeks of dedicated concentration, you start to wonder if she's just hammering in ideas ever deeper without offering anything more.
Even professional readers struggle with this book. “Over a thousand pages long, dense with history and incident, it is vast enough to make this reader’s knees buckle," confessed The Guardian's reviewer when the English translation was released in 2021.
For me, the novel brought back nightmares in which my teeth fall out or I stand without pants in the street, in a T-shirt too short to hide my shortcomings. According to Jung, this means you feel you're losing your grip on something (teeth) or you feel vulnerable (nudity). Or maybe something entirely different, because Jung isn't easily summarised by a layman.
The nightmares are running again with this year's Nobel laureate, the Norwegian Jon Fosse. His masterpiece is Septology, a collection of short novels that form a minimalist marathon of more than 1,000 pages. He uses only two types of punctuation: commas and question marks. His language is deliberately simple and he circles around every melancholy incident or memory before moving just a tiny bit further.
The story takes place over a few days around Christmas, and the stream of consciousness is in the mind of Asle, an old painter and widower who lives alone in the countryside. He has a namesake and doppelganger, also a painter, who is drinking himself to death in the nearest village.
Asle tries to understand his new painting of one brown and one purple stripe, wrestles with a restlessness in his soul, ponders the lonely other Asle and makes plans for a Christmas dinner. That's it.
“You don't read my books for the stories," says Fosse. Instead, he gives you reflections on art and faith (he is a recently converted Roman Catholic). Apparently, it never becomes clear whether one doppelganger exists only in the head of the other, but the deeper meaning revolves around predestination, life choices and so on.
The New York Times reviewer says Fosse's writing is “bleak, impassive, mournful, circuitous, almost insistently inscrutable". Well summarised. But how do you put down such a celebrated book?
Nancy Pearl, who earned the nickname “America's librarian", came up with the rule of 50. She dedicated her life to books and is the author of, among other things, Book Lust, a series in which she recommends reading material for every mood and age. The rule states: decide after 50 pages whether you want to continue reading the book or not. It worked for her until her fifties.
“As I wended my way toward 60, and beyond, I could no longer avoid the realisation that, while the reading time remaining in my life was growing shorter, the world of books that I wanted to read was, if anything, growing larger… I realised that my rule of 50 was incomplete," she explains.
Nancy is now 78 and has added this amendment to her rule: if you're over 50, read 100 pages minus your age. She adds that you usually try about 10 books before finding the one that suits you at that moment.
This means I can set aside Fosse and try something else, with or without guilt. In my e-library, under “Save for later", I have:
- The Betrothed (Alessandro Manzoni);
- Tale of Genji (Murasaki Shikibu);
- Berlin Alexanderplatz (Alfred Döblin); and
- Secondhand Time (Svetlana Alexievich).
None of them is exactly recreational literature. But what I tackle next only gets 38 pages to impress me.
Nancy said so, after all.
♦ VWB ♦
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