So, last August, I had a week off from work, and I spent it reading War and Peace. It was a great week. I’d go out to the backyard with two chairs. I’d put my ashtray and cigarettes on one chair. I would angle the other chair in whatever direction seemed most sunny / interesting. Then I’d read for hours (while making what felt like only barely noticeable inroads into the book).
Now, I was already kind of prepped to enjoy War and Peace because I had read Anna Karenina just a few months earlier, in May. But there was something about time standing still, about the feeling of accomplishment in reading something I had never thought I would read, about the setting, and, yes, I suppose, about the book and its contents, that made this a deeply pleasurable and very unforgettable experience.
I can’t really remember when and where I read most of the books I read. Books are not really that kind of experience? They’re really about losing yourself in something, and forgetting all the tactile and sensory triggers that serve as an aide to episodic memory. But despite that, our reading lives are studded with experiences like the one I had with War and Peace.
I know that there are a number of books which I can remember more for when and where I read them than I can for their content (let’s just pretend I inserted a list of such highly personal moments right here). But last August was the first time I had purposely manufactured such an experience: it was the first time I set out to have a mind-blowing reading experience and actually succeeded.
And that is something that I have been trying to do – with varied levels of success – ever since. And my attempts have usually taken the form of: “Oh, this book is huge and famous. I will set out to read it in a short period of time and maybe it will be magical.” I’ve tried it, for instance, with In Search Of Lost Time (which is great, but is too much work to really allow me to notice the outside work while reading it, maybe?) and I tried it with Murakami’s After Dark (a novel whose first act takes place in an all-night fast food establishment [okay, a Denny’s] which I read in an all-night McDonald’s [and yes, this totally worked and was magical. It helped that the book was short enough to finish in one sitting]). Anyway, you get the picture.
It’s sort of shallow, I’ll admit, like gastronomes who rate their food on how well it is presented on the plate, but…well…I guess I am just that kind of gastronome. Anyway, so…I’ve been feeling kind of morose lately, so I decided to read Don Quixote, which is about a man with a lot of dreams, who discovers that his dreams are impossible.
At least…that’s what I thought it was about. Actually, it’s a completely horrifying novel about an insane old man and his incredibly stupid sidekick, who both get repeatedly beat up over the course of about a month (or at least, that’s what Part One is about. There are a lot of digressions and silly crap like that in it).
This biggest surprise so far has been that Don Quixote (at least in the unabridged Putnam translation that I am reading) is actually very readable, particularly when it’s just Quixote and Sancho Panza riffing off each other. It’s kind of strange, considering how absurdly old this novel is, that I am able to even approach reading it quickly and normally, the way I would a contemporary novel.