Saturday, May 19, 2007

Reading the Thickie

Bloody Thick Book; A Thickie

I love to read. There's little that I enjoy reading - be it of any topic, whether it is about the uses of a corpse to the literature of Steinbeck to Sade, Achebe, Kawabata, Palahniuk to the philosophy colletions by Grayling (for the twenty minute philosophical brief), Hume, Kierkegaard to the anthologies of Coplestone and Russell to the meanderings of Ruskin to the studies of Winnicott, Postman and Holt to unadulterated filthy gutter porn to the essays of Hazlitt, Bacon and White to clothes labels, cereal boxes, computer equipment packaging to promotional pamphlets given and found. But my love for reading is without its Achilles Heel: the Thickie.

Thickies are defined as books with more than 400 pages of heavy denseness (many sentences per page) set in a small and austere font. These books usually have ugly page aesthetics. When you open the page, what you see in the page are not clean, precise and accurate depictions of alphabets arranged according to their groups and these in turn arranged in sentences of sufficient width (which combine to create a pattern of white and black on the page that is aesthetically pleasing when seen from a reasonably readable distance), you just see a thin, jagged line scurrying across the page leaving a daunting looking sentence. And when all of these hideous lines are put close to each other, they look like some sinister code that when recited would unleash the forces of evil upon earth and I would have to do battle with them and eventually triump over them in my leopard skin loin cloth, velvet red cape (that only stretches half way down my back), my sword forged by Zeus on one of his drunken bouts and a motorcycle helmet (nobody makes those iron helmets with spikes anymore) with a Hello Kitty sticker stuck on the right side. [Note to self: start working out so body looks good in battle outfit. Split one pack to eight pack so loincloth and cape can also be washed on stomach].

Worse are those books that use paper that are really supposed to be used on frilly lingerie. Some of them are so thin as to be transparent that when you turn the page, if you focused your eyes intensely enough (like men are wont to do with finely built women in whatever clothing), you can even see the printed words and setences on the opposite side. I can understand the use of it by budget publishers and for budget books but this sort of quality paper is simply unacceptable for books, of whatever thickness or thinness. After all, how is one supposed to use the damn book when one is stuck in the toilet without any tissue paper and no friends around nearby to get that roll of toilet paper for you? Paper like that can barely hold print, it sure as hell ain't holding shit.

But despite my issues with thickies, that does not mean that I don't attempt them or even on rare occasions finish them. I just have to go through an elaborate pre-reading ritual before I commence the book. Depending on the thickness, length and hardness (of the writer or writing), it takes up to about 2 - 3 weeks before I begin books of such volume.

The first thing I do is to read a few shorter books in quick succession. These are books of excellent writing and inevitably tend to be classics. The reason for this is to build up my reading stamina and appreciation. Stamina is gained from reading several books in quick succession and the different books are to help keep things interesting or prevent the exercise of reading from being too monotonous. It is important for me to read good books so that my benchmark for quality is set and fresh in my mind when I attempt the thickies. These books are also important in helping me practise my appreciation of the plot, dialogue, themes and style of writing - and perhaps to see if there are resonances in the thickies with some of the great novels of literature.

The second thing is to place the book in a place where I would see it often or regularly. This is to affix in my mind that I will be attempting that book soon. It is like the climber that sits in some Swiss cottage in some funky sounding Swiss village near the Alps on a cool spring day out in his garden blowing on his cup of freshly brewed coffee whilst basking in the magnificence of the jagged snowcapped mountain range, toying in his mind how he would climb it. So the idea is something like that even though the reality is nothing like that. What usually happens is I just put the book on my study table and can't help but see it because of its size. And what you see everyday becomes less daunting and smaller even as time goes by.

The third thing is to 'flip it'. To flip it would be to pick up the book and feel the weight of it resting on your hands; to smell the earthiness of its pages by gently spreading it wide and then dipping your nose carefully right down the middle and inhaling deeply; caressing the pages to feel its texture - smooth as a virgin's or sticky traction like a lover's skin after several bouts of love making; turn to the front to see just how much introductions, preface and table of index has to offer and then to the back to check the booty and see what extras they have as back up - endnotes, references, bibliographies, interviews with the author and further reading recommendations; then determining just how many pages I will be actually reading; if the book is tempting enough, I may be even tempted to read a few lines here and there just to taste the book - which may whet my appetite for more.

Finally, there is the inevitable reading. The conditions must be optimal before I start this book. And whilst I don't consult a feng shui guy or get a colonic irrigation before I start, the environment in which I begin the book must be pleasant and cozy. I definitely cannot commence reading the book whilst taking a dump in the toilet nor in the car while driving to work or even during work. Its not conducive nor convenient. An example of optimal conditions for commencement of a thickie attempt would be perhaps on my sofa in my study with the airconditioning at twenty three degrees centigrade, with a freshly opened can of beer, soft pleasant music (like Norah Jones, John Mayer or Keane) playing unobstrusively in the background, a pencil and eraser on hand, comfortably attired - like a pair of boxers and singlet, and finally a few uninterrupted hours. These days, that sounds like waiting for planets and starts to align to form a shape much like my arse. Which probably explains why I don't read many thickies as I should.

There's also one thing I noticed in the literature kingdom - that most of modern classics of literature tend to be on the short side (unless you are Russian then short is something like less than 1000 pages) - I wonder whether that is because most people are also daunted, don't have the time or are lazy when it comes to reading a thickie. More interestingly, I wonder whether a thickie has any place in this fast paced Internet environment where time is not one or five o'clock but money.

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