(Second in the series, How to read literature like a thirsty linguist).
At my old book club in California, we did alright for ourselves. We met once a month. We didn’t gossip. We actually discussed characters and plots. But we cheated a tiny bit. We let ourselves talk even if we hadn’t finished the book. The rule: If you had read the first 100 pages, you had full discussion privileges.
At my new book club in Massachusetts, this would not stand. We meet once a month. But during the interim, most of us read the assigned book plus two or three more books to boot. 576 pages of Jonathan Franzen? Kid’s stuff.
Actually, though, the California club was pretty good. We had stimulating conversations that I still recall fondly, five years later. This raises a question. Can you really appreciate a book if you read only part of it?
Obviously, for the Massachusetts club, the question is moot. (Yes, we need more hobbies). But everyone else — that is, people who love books and but are also maniacally busy — would probably be interested to know the answer.
Elif Batuman is an essayist who writes frequently about Turkish culture. When a journalist asked Batuman what she thinks of her famous compatriot, Orhan Pamuk, the reply got published as a newspaper heading: “I WAS UNABLE TO FINISH PAMUK.”
Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. On some level, his books must be good. Indeed, Batuman pays him a nice tribute in a recent New Yorker article. She’s ostensibly writing about a Turkish ornithologist from Kars, a city just over the border from Armenia. But she mostly quotes from Pamuk’s Snow (2004), a novel that painstakingly and evocatively describes this forgotten city.
But wait. Did Batuman read Snow? She said she couldn’t finish Pamuk. Maybe she cheated a little. Maybe she read the first 100 pages, then gave herself full discussion privileges.
Time for a confession. I read only the first 100 pages of Snow. And I loved it! I can still picture the dark snowy streets of Kars in my mind. So why didn’t I finish it?
Linguists use the concept of “timing units” to capture the fact that certain sounds are longer than others. For example, if you say “Jay-Z” with a lot of emphasis, the Z will be longer than usual. We represent this fact by adding an extra timing unit to the Z, but it’s still a Z. It’s like a yoga pose. You can hold it for a few extra seconds, but it’s still a downward dog.
I think some novels use timing units. They set up a basic plot and a few characters. But as you turn the pages, the book gets longer while plot and characters remain the same. Instead of moving along, the book just holds the yoga pose a little longer.
There’s no question that books like this are hard to read. They lack plot twists. They lack character development. Snow felt like this to me. I enjoyed it what I got, but I eventually put it down, thinking that Pamuk’s extra timing units probably wouldn’t add anything new.
So if the novel comes to a standstill, we can properly appreciate it after 100 pages. Right? Actually, I am not so sure. Some timing units are superfluous. You can press an elevator button and hold it for several seconds, but that won’t have any effect on the elevator. And a few novels are like this, too. You can keep reading, but that won’t have any affect on the plot.
But most timing units exist for a reason. With emphasis, Jay-Z takes on a different tone (“That’s not Kanye West, you moron, that’s Jay-Z”). With a few extra seconds, the yoga pose feels different and your body’s relaxation deepens. I’m willing to argue that some novels are like this, too. Their long duration is the whole point.
Museum of Innocence (2009) works like this. Now I get full discussion privileges because, in this case, I WAS ABLE TO FINISH PAMUK. The summary is that a wealthy young guy named Kemal falls in love with a shop-girl named Füsun, starts going to her family’s modest apartment for dinner every night, and steals stuff from them.
Not exactly riveting. But the summary misses the point. Kemal continues this pattern for eight whole years. Füsun has married someone else, so his love for the lower-class shop-girl goes unrequited. Instead of building a life with her, he eats dinner and watches television with her family. The years plod on. Kemal details each moment of his suffering in excruciating detail, using the stolen stuff to build a “museum” that bears witness to his experiences.
By the end of the book, by the time the 531st page has been completed, the reader feels the weight of that lost time. It’s a sunken feeling in the heart. You could get the same plot in 100 pages: the meeting, the fateful marriage, the ensuing dinners. But you could not get that feeling. The timing units, modest but devastating, have done their work.