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Julianna Baggott

Big books offer readers an extended escape

It isn't just my imagination — mainstream blockbuster novels are getting wider. The first book in the Harry Potter series weighed in at a healthy 309 pages and ballooned to a hefty 784 pages by book seven. The Twilight series was always large but kept growing — from 544 pages to 608 to 640 and, in book four, 756 pages. Justin Cronin's The Passage — which will be published in June and sold at auction for a whopping $3 million — is 784 pages, the start of a series.

Is the multi-thousand-page blockbuster series the new trend? If so, why? I have a theory.

During my childhood, stories were lodged in books, three TV channels plus PBS, the lonesome afterschool special, Sunday sermons, family tales and the movies that flickered in theaters for short runs then disappeared. By high school, there were small video rental stores — one per town.

Now story is everywhere — hundreds of TV channels, DVD rentals, on-demand stations, pay-per-views, Netflix, Webcasts, YouTube, the streaming narrative of the daily lives of friends on Facebook and Twitter, the 24-hour narrative of the news cycle, as well as embedded in almost every commercial. New research on giving shows that would-be donors don't want any statistics — just one person's story.

The proliferation of narrative puts each of our own singular narratives in stark contrast — so much so that it's my belief that one of modern time's greatest sadnesses is the glaring fact that, against this cluttered backdrop of narration, each of us is allotted only one life. There are so many stories bearing down on us at all times that our own, in comparison, appears small, puny, lonesome riding its single narrative track.

Best-case scenario: We're young. We grow older. We die.

Long ago, this might have been a little easier to accept. Premodern man might have heard narratives at the fire on the full moons. But now — while story upon story is thrown at us — how can we feel content with just this one measly life — much less appreciate it?

We've praised narrative as a way to live a life more fully and with more depth, believed that characters' lives express something inside of us, give shape to our longing, and allow us to return to our own lives with more perception. But what if that claim was fitting for another era — just as the right to bear arms wasn't really taking automatic machine guns into consideration? At what point do the machine-gun effects of narrative turn on us?

What if climbing divorce rates, trends in job-hopping and the reason we move from place to place don't have as much to do with the standard claims — the rise of feminism, lack of corporate loyalty, the new global mind-set or the lost prioritization of family? What if one persistent underlying cause is really the result of a bombardment of narrative, of story, which spurs our discontent and causes us to desire to live more lives?

I would argue that just as we, as a culture, eat too much junk food too quickly, we have become story-obese. Just as we often eat without tasting, we passively receive stories without reflection.

And what is a story without reflection? It's the difference between empathy and voyeurism. Reflection allows us to see our own lives in the characters' lives. Without it, character becomes other, just another passerby in a world thronging with characters. And one of our simplest and darkest crimes against each other is how we pass each other by, denying each other's humanity in ordinary, daily ways.

Recently I have been drawn to the shut-down, tune-out, all-engulfing reads — novels that cannot be read in one sitting or two or three, novels that resurface in the mind between readings. In other words, I want to read in a way that shuts out other narrations and forces reflection in a way that big novels do better than any other form of narrative.

I'm not claiming that hefty novels are being chosen by readers because they force reflection. Perhaps, more simply, they offer prolonged escape — from what? Maybe the endless bombardment of narration.

Stephen King praises Cronin's novel this way, "Read this book and the ordinary world disappears."

For me, that ordinary world is one that's overloading me with story. In rebellion against being force-fed, I want to taste. I want that taste to linger. I want to reflect on that taste and go back for more.

Julianna Baggott is a novelist and poet who lives in Tallahassee. Her most recent novel is The Pretend Wife, under her pen name Bridget Asher.

Big books offer readers an extended escape 04/05/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 5, 2010 7:19pm]

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