Four Obnoxiously Long, Challenging Reads
Something has always irked me about the term “summer reading.” Maybe it’s because the word “light” usually goes along with it.
Recommending “light summer reading” is like telling someone to eat bland, unnourishing food or telling them to travel to a place that is only mildly interesting. Life is too short to do things by half-measures.
Instead, I recommend to you four books that are the exact opposite of traditional “summer reading.” These books are obnoxiously long, and in some ways, quite challenging.
But long and challenging are not the opposite of pleasurable and interesting. And in this age of short attention spans, it’s quite an achievement simply to focus one’s mind on a prolonged narrative. There’s pride in that.
Here are the four books:
1. Parallel Lives by Plutarch
Written nearly two thousand years ago, Plutarch’s Lives is a compendium of dozens of short biographies of famous men of the ancient world. Ralph Waldo Emerson called the book “a bible for heroes”—and it is that, but it’s much more. What Plutarch does is pair up the life of a famous ancient Greek with that of an ancient Roman and compares them. Plutarch’s approach is far from a dry, analytical historian’s, however. At the start of his life of Alexander the Great, he says:
I consider my Design is not to write Histories, but Lives. Neither do the most glorious Exploits always furnish us with the clearest Discoveries of Virtue, or Vice, in Men; sometimes a Matter of less Moment, an Expression or a Jest, informs us better of their Manners and Inclinations, than the most famous Sieges, the greatest Encampments, or the bloodiest Battles…
2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
Going along with the ancient theme, here we have a book that meticulously tracks the waning of Roman power. As depressing as that may sound, it’s actually a very diverting read—and perhaps we as Americans can find some food for thought in its pages. Gibbon charts the Empire’s demise from its consolidation of power in the person of the Emperor to the increasing lack of civic-mindedness of its decadent citizenry to the growing political influence of the professional military class to the irresistible pull of religious fanaticism—all of it sparked by the author’s visit to the ruins of Rome in the late 18th century:
It was among the ruins of the Capitol that I first conceived the idea of a work which amused and exercised nearly twenty years of my life, and which, however inadequate to my own wishes, I finally deliver to the curiosity and candor of the Public.
3. Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en
This is the most obscure entry of this list. Considered to be one of the four great novels of Chinese literature, Journey to the West is a comic novel along the lines of Don Quixote or Huckleberry Finn. It centers around a magic monkey—yes, that’s right, a magic monkey—who accompanies a Buddhist monk to India to retrieve some precious scriptures. The monkey’s name is Sun Wukong, and he’s one of the great characters of literature—clever, self-serving, compassionate, headstrong, you name it.
This book has spawned numerous movies and cartoons and plays in China, and if for no other reason, you should become acquainted with this story to ingratiate yourself with your future Chinese overlords (just kidding). Here’s a taste of the book—in which Buddha (yes, that Buddha) describes an encounter he had with the Monkey:
“The wretch was a monkey fiend born on the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit,” the Buddha replied, “whose towering crimes would beggar description… He said that he had divine powers, was able to do transformations, and could ride a somersault cloud for thirty-six thousand miles at a single jump. I made a wager with him that he could not jump out of my hand, then grabbed him, turned my fingers into the Five Elements Mountain, and sealed him under it…”
4. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
The mother of them all. When people think of long, difficult reads, they usually mention War and Peace. It’s almost become a joke. But actually, War and Peace is a very readable book. A lot of people complain about the complicated Russian names, but that’s a cop-out.
The story follows two principal characters: the awkward Count Pierre Bezukhov and the dashing Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. Their twistings and turnings of attitude and philosophy, their struggles for meaning, are things of beauty:
In captivity, in the shed, Pierre had learned, not with his mind, but with his whole being, his life, that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfying of natural human needs, and that all unhappiness comes not from lack, but from superfluity; but now, in these last three weeks of the march, he had learned a new and more comforting truth—he had learned that there is nothing frightening in the world. He had learned that, as there is no situation in the world in which a man can be happy and perfectly free, so there is no situation in which he can be perfectly unhappy and unfree.