long stories

I’ve been listening lately to Ann Bogel’s podcast What Should I Read Next?. I have to admit that this show is not at the top of my to-listen list, and that’s because it stresses me out a little, for the simple reason that the question that Bogel says “plagues every reader”–what should I read next?–does not plague me. Setting aside my purely aspirational Want to Read list on Goodreads, I have a list of books that I already own and haven’t read yet, and it’s still quite long despite the fact that I’ve been systematically attacking it since fall 2018 (when I realized it was a problem). So the podcast just gives me a bunch of titles of books that I’ll probably never read. Nevertheless, I get some pleasure out of hearing people chat about books, even ones that I’ll never read, so I keep this podcast in my rotation. If you’ve listened to the show, you know that Bogel asks each guest to name three books they love, one book that didn’t work for them, and a book they’ve been reading recently. So naturally, I’ve been thinking about which books I would name if I were a guest. The first two of the three books I love are easy: Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (if she forced me to choose one, I’d go with Prisoner of Azkaban, the one that really made me fall in love with the series). I’m still mulling over what I’d choose for my third book (it feels like a high-stakes decision), but in the meantime, I’ve been thinking about what makes me love a book.

I thought about this last night after I got out of the bathtub, where I had spent a relaxing half-hour reading one of my Christmas gifts from my sweet book-loving fiance: The Well of Ascension, the second book in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. I am now about halfway through the book, which means I’m about halfway through the series, and it just struck me last night how much I am enjoying these books (though I don’t know if I’d use the word “love” yet. For the books, I mean. I love my fiance.). I realized that I am looking forward to long periods of time when I can sit down and read The Well of Ascension, that I can picture the setting vividly even when I’m not reading, and that I really care what happens to the characters. I know part of the reason why I’m just now getting into the story is that there were too many blow-by-blow (literally) action sequences in the first book–and I understand why this might be necessary for the first book of a fantasy series that involves a specific, unique type of magic. But I really don’t care who punched whom and when. This second book is much more about relationships, political intrigue, and human psychology. But I think another reason why I’m so into this book is that it’s long.

Well, not just long. Quantity does not supersede quality for me. But I’ve realized that I love books (and movies and TV series) that have extensive world-building, deep character development, and layered plots–and on top of all this, a sense that the story-world has been lived in, not just made up on the fly. And in order for all that to work, a writer needs space–hence, length. Most of my favorite stories–stories you’ve seen me write about on this blog–have these qualities: Downton Abbey (with its hour-long, commercial-free episodes), the Godfather films (a major time commitment I embark on only about once every other year), the novels of Charles Dickens (it’s no accident that one of Dickens’ shortest novels, Hard Times, is probably my least favorite). [I have written on this blog about Dickens’ “teeming world,” crowded with memorable people.] One of the greatest compliments I can give a story is that I’ve spent so much time inside it that I feel like the characters are my family. That’s why I cried so much when Sibyl died in season three of Downton Abbey, why the birthday party scene at the end of The Godfather Part 2 blows my mind every time I watch it, and why I’ve written fan fiction about the Weasleys going about their mundane lives after the defeat of Voldemort. However flawed they are, I want to be part of those families. I don’t know if Sanderson’s ad hoc family of thieves and kings will make it into my top tier of favorites, but their admission to that circle currently looks promising.

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