In praise of fat books and slow reading

I recently started Victor Hugo's novel "Les Miserables," which most people seem to prefer in movie or musical theater form if only because those take less time. You can get the story in under three hours instead of taking who knows how long to plow through the 1,232-page Penguin edition.

No, I'm not fishing for sympathy. Having this mountain of pages to climb gives me great peace of mind. I like starting books, and I like reading books. What I don't like is finishing books, and with "Les Miserables," that won't be a problem for a while.

Finishing a book means the end of something pleasurable — otherwise, I would have tossed it aside long before. It also fills me with dread and terror, because it means I have to decide what to read next.

For years I avoided "Les Miserables," partly because it seemed like the reading equivalent of Jean Valjean's 19 years as a galley slave. But then my daughter gave it to me for Christmas, and I have a firm policy of reading any book my kids give me.

Besides, what's so great about skinny books? As a friend of mine says when people ask him why he reads mammoth volumes, "If you really like a book, why would you want it to be shorter?"

No one, after all, seeks out ski mountains because they have short runs. No one wishes Beethoven had done three-minute symphonies. No one exercises in hopes of achieving an abbreviated life span.

One- or two-pound books spare me, for a while, the most painful part of my reading regimen: indecision. When I reach the end, I'm tormented by all the options before me: Fiction or history? Biography or memoir? Contemporary or 19th-century? American or British? I can't sleep soundly till I decide how to spend the coming weeks or months.

Yes, months, because after a youth spent gobbling down books like a starving goat, I have come to understand the wisdom of taking ... them ... slowly. It's not much of an accomplishment to have read every important author if most of what they wrote escapes you afterward.

So I try to pay attention to every word and sentence, underlining the ones that grab me. And I don't read books once. I read them twice: stopping every 50 or 100 pages to go back and read them again.

Given my inadequate capacity for retention, it's the only way I can remember what I've read for more than 72 hours. And if I really want to remember it — well, there's no law against reading the same volume three times.

The first time through, I'm reading the book. The second time, I'm living in it. The third time, it's taking up permanent residence in me.

This approach has other attractions. My greatest fear in life is being stuck somewhere with nothing to read. I once boarded an eight-hour nighttime flight only to find that my overhead reading lamp was broken and every other seat was taken. Oh, and the in-flight movie was "Inspector Gadget."

Now I take not only a book but my own reading light — with spare batteries. If you don't mind rereading, one book is all you need.

Even my hourlong daily commuter train ride is agony without a supply of printed words. Once in a while, an accident on the tracks ahead will delay us for an hour or two. Major inconvenience? No, exceptional reading opportunity.

Writer Joe Queenan recently published a memoir, "One for the Books," in which he claims to have read 6,128 of them in his 62 years, or more than 100 a year, with plans to finish 2,137 more before his life story reaches The End. I haven't kept up with him so far, and I have no ambition to try.

In fact, my goal is to read only a dozen or so books each year, and read them slowly and carefully. A book read that way doesn't sit on your shelf. It percolates in your soul.

I'm of the view that anything worth doing is worth prolonging and worth revisiting over and over. The best books are like the best romances: They last as long as you live.

Mind if I stop now? I have some reading to do.

Steve Chapman is a member of the Tribune's editorial board and blogs at chicagotribune.com/chapman.

schapman@tribune.com

Twitter @SteveChapman13

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