A Dance to the Music of Time

A local weblogger has started to wave the white flag over his commitment to read Anthony Powell’s excellent (and very long) novel, A Dance to the Music of Time. I suggested several days ago that this was probably the longest work I have ever read, longer even than Á la recherché de temps perdu. I’d like to offer some encouragement for anyone now reading or contemplating reading Dance, and a few suggestions for augmenting the experience.

First, the statistics:  here from Robert L Selig; Time and Anthony Powell, A Critical Study

This twelve-volume sequence [A Dance to the Music of Time] traces a colorful group of English acquaintances across a span of many years from 1914 to 1971. The slowly developing narrative centers around life’s poignant encounters between friends and lovers who later drift apart and yet keep reencountering each other over numerous unfolding decades as they move through the vicissitudes of marriage, work, aging, and ultimately death. Until the last three volumes, the next standard excitements of old-fashioned plots (What will happen next? Will x marry y? Will y murder z?) seem far less important than time’s slow reshuffling of friends, acquaintances, and lovers in intricate human arabesques.”

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Remember Little Big Books?

I’ve decided to deal with the next two challenge questions in one post and only to rely on my rapidly crumbling memory for a response. First, however, other than a certain curiosity factor and a possible comparison with the Guiness Book of Records, what value is there in knowing how long a book is and that I read it? Is The Tale of Genji read and studied because of its length? Is Peter Marcus published because his novels don’t use up much paper?

I believe anyone who honestly answers this question will conclude that the shortest book they read was probably one of those thick-page picture books designed for toddlers who are just teething. I vividly remember that my own, beloved alphabet book was exactly twenty-six pages. I’m not as certain of the length of my learn-to-count book but I suspect it was fewer pages than my alphabet book.

As a grown-up mature reader (begging the question here) I discovered short-short stories, often only a half page in length. But these are always published in collections so I believe they are ineligible for this question. I have read and enjoyed several short novels that were published in book form, usually a holiday knock-off by a popular or prestigious writer. I can’t remember any of the lengths but in general I suspect they were over 26 pages. There are, however, some short books coming out of the publishing houses that rather than being well-thought and well-written are sliced off a longer work and published separately to increase profits:  Stephen King is good for this, as is Neal Stephenson (I would suggest the single-volume edition of “Brokeback Mountain,” but with the movie tie-in I’ll let it slide). It’s interesting to look at the price affixed to these short books; has anyone ever done an analysis of the price per page of the books we buy?

But if a toddler’s first book with squeaking pages and finger-holes was my shortest book, what was my longest book?

Well, this is both hard and easy: it’s hard because the really long novels I have read are inevitably broken down into smaller volumes which, presumably, makes them more approachable to the reader (but curiously allows the publisher to make even more money of the sales). We all know the story of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. In this case I believe the publisher’s page restriction because of the state of paper production (and quality) that existed just after the war. But there are many other novels that were published in chunks and should now be considered a single book: A Dance to the Music of Time is one. Powell published Dance in sections as they were written but if you read Dance (and you must) it isn’t 12 independent novels but one big, long novel. On the other hand, there is Proust: is Á la recherché de temps perdu as single novel? Interestingly, different translations suggest that the individual volumes might not have been the author’s original idea. I have Temps Perdu in a single volume, in French, and consider it a single book of about 2600 pages.

So what is the longest book I have read? By my rules, at over 3,000 pages, it is A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell.  Á la recherché de temps perdu comes in second at about 2,600 pages, Clarissa by Samuel Richardson at about 1,500 pages, and The Tale of Genji fourth at a tad over 1,200 pages.

There are other excellent books that can be added to this list:  Boswell’s Biography of Dr. Johnson (~1200); Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann (~1500); Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (~1,300); The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil (~1,800). I suppose I should ask if you think the Harry Potter series should be considered here? I didn’t read it and hesitate to award any sort of notoriety to it, but others may think differently. You?