Photography by Tom Tian, AB’10

(Photography by Tom Tian, AB’10)

The long and short of it

Some books should never end.

David Blum, AB’77, is the editor of Amazon’s electronic publishing arm, Kindle Singles. In “Craft Singles,” he notes that the e-books let stories grow to their natural length, unconstrained by magazine publishers’ maximum word counts and book publishers’ minimums. Good for writers and good for readers. But what about books whose natural length, if we had our druthers, would be infinite?

In spring 2007 I started reading A Dance to the Music of Time (1951–75). Rising six and three-eighths inches tall as a stack, Anthony Powell’s masterwork has epic proportions but recounts ordinary events. The sequence of 12 novels about life in English artistic and political circles from the early 1920s to, I’m told, 1971 is often compared to Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). Each of the four sturdy volumes in my handsome Chicago paperback edition, bedecked with figures from Nicolas Poussin’s painting of the same title, contains three novels. All told, it numbers nearly 3,000 pages.

Narrator Nick Jenkins is the sun in Powell’s orrery. As a host of other characters enter his orbit, drift away, and loop back, Jenkins tries to divine patterns in their movements. Straggling through the first couple of novels, I labored to keep the vast dramatis personae straight, rewarded by Powell’s drily hilarious portraits along the way—highly specific specimens of definite English types. My progress was halting in volume one, not yet deliberately. Between chapters I sometimes read whole other books. I vaguely aspired to reach the end someday.

In the second volume, the hook now firmly lodged, the books still felt inexhaustible. But I read more and more blissfully, and in content assurance that indefinite pages lay ahead. The third volume marks a shift, breaking the rhythm of parties and love affairs as World War II envelops all of England. It was near the end of this volume—1945 in Dance time, 2011 in mine—that it hit home: I would actually finish all twelve novels. And then there would be none left.

For more than a year, I’ve been on page 119 of volume four, nearly halfway through the tenth novel, Books Do Furnish a Room. This one has furnished mine for that span. Sometimes I even tote it along on my commute. But mentally I’ve deposited those last 700 pages in the bank. Until when? We’ll see.

From comparing notes with other Powellites, I know my stalling is not unique. Maybe it’s how unplanned the novels feel, approximating life; they seem to be heading not toward a climactic ending but to a slow dwindling of experience. Oh well—with books, at least, one can start again.