Anna Weir is a publicist at UNP who enjoys Tolkien but not pages and pages of Elvish.
Over a year ago, the acquisitions department at UNP presented a new title, the latest in the Frontiers of Narrative series. At first, I was a little wary—Frontiers of Narrative is a more erudite series, books about books and the study of literature, the kind of material one might spend a week or two discussing in a graduate English class.
But as the editor gave some background to the manuscript, she mentioned that the original title the author proposed was How to Read the Boring Bits of Excessively Long Books.
I smiled and nodded with the rest of my department and quietly jotted the line into my notes. Gee, I thought, wouldn’t that be a useful skill.
Like many readers, I have a love-hate relationship with large books. I love having read them but I sometimes hate the process. Namely, I despise slogging through lengthy, needless detail (the turtle chapter in Grapes of Wrath, anyone?) and the chapters that follow an unrelated character the reader will never encounter again. Those passages frustrate me, both as a reader who must endure them and as a writer who knows all too well how painful it can be to put one word after another on a page. In one of my English courses in college, my professor mentioned a line attributed to James Joyce, about how “writing hard” for a whole day meant he managed two sentences. I know the desire to make each word count, to only include a scene if it moves the plot forward. So when the plot comes to a screeching halt to make way for an entire chapter on whaling terminology, I have a hard time accepting that the stops are worthwhile. I get frustrated—not because I don’t understand what I’m reading, but because I don’t understand its purpose in the story.
Thankfully, David Letzler understands this frustration, and validates it in the latest addition to the Frontiers of Narrative series.
His book, The Cruft of Fiction: Mega-Novels and the Science of Paying Attention, is a book I wish I had as an undergrad student. Focusing on intimidating tomes like Finnegans Wake and War and Peace, Letzler assures the reader that those long, confusing, and honestly boring parts of books are, in fact, long, confusing, and boring. Those passages, which Letzler terms “cruft” after the computer science term for clunky coding, could likely be removed and the story would still function—but in removing those passages, the reader might miss something. Perhaps something not crucial to the plot itself, but something the author wanted to include. Finding that something requires a great deal of attentiveness and decision-making on the part of the reader. (“What’s important here? What isn’t? Am I spending too much time trying to figure this out?”) And learning how to give a dense book that level of attentiveness, as Letzler encourages—well, a reader becomes better acquainted with the author, their vision, their person, and the writing they left behind.
Once one learns how to read a mega-novel attentively, reading a news article attentively becomes significantly easier. In our media-saturated world, with information in abundance and understanding less so, learning to sift through cruft in order to find what is significant is a skill we as readers and as politically-conscious citizens need to practice.
So if you’ve wanted to read Tristram Shandy or The Wind-up Bird Chronicle for years but have been too intimidated to start without the guidance of a book club or an English class, I encourage you to give them a go. But maybe after reading Letzler’s advice on reading through those boring bits.