How to Read a Trophy Book

First, you have to spend years just considering reading it. Maybe even picking the heavy volume up once or twice, and skimming the first few pages. Flipping through the entirety of the thousand-page-thing. Every time you walk past it in a bookstore or see it on someone else’s shelf, you sort of take note, with a cold, clammy feeling that it is staring you down. (I swear this feeling can actually happen.)

Then, you buy it – maybe there was a sale, or you found an edition that you liked and didn’t want it to get away from you. If it’s a translated work, you know which translation you want ahead of time, of course. And since this book will take you a long time to read, it’s a beautiful cover and bind. Now this book can stare you down from the comfort of its spot on your bookshelf. And if you’re like me, you’ll go through a few cycles where you start reading it, then stop, citing not-enough-time and too-large-of-a-commitment as the reasons. And again, and again. And one day, you go through your bookshelf picking out novels that you bought but haven’t read, and come across it, and say, “Now is the time” – or perhaps something less dramatic – and just start reading.

The first sitting will be a long one, you get through 50 pages. You’ll feel like you’re confronting a project of sorts. And hey, you realize it’s not bad. The writing is good. The characters are likable. So you continue. And throughout the next six months you read this book everyday or every week, bit by bit. Sometimes it is a chore and you check the page number every few minutes to track progress (and this is okay). Sometimes it’s so delightful that you get through a tenth of the whole thing in no time at all. One time, when you drag the entire thing with you on your daily commute, when you find that it has a permanent spot on your desk, when the cover becomes just slightly worn enough to fit right into your hands, you realize you’re enjoying this novel almost in spite of yourself. It has ceased being a project, and it’s just a great read now. In the end, you always alternate between this feeling and the stressful counting of pages described before. Trophy Books can be emotional roller coasters.

The most tragic part is always the last hundred pages. Because you spent half a year with this author’s train of thought, and with the characters that you loved and hated, it’s painful knowing that you’ll be parting soon. So you read slowly, soaking it all in, lingering on sentences…  And when it’s over, it’s an occasion. I remember to this day what I was doing, where I was sitting, what I was feeling when I finished the last pages of Atlas Shrugged four years ago. While I can’t wait to read it again, monumental books like that can only be read for the first time once.

I’m starting off 2013 with reading War and Peace.  According to the translators’ introduction, Isaac Babel said that “If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.” So far, I couldn’t agree more – which means I am currently on the upper curve of the emotional roller coaster of this Trophy Book.


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