Article published on July 11, 2012.
Last Friday, I spent eight hours reading The Great Gatsby – in Soho, in the dark, along with six hundred or so other skiving bibliophiles. This extraordinary experience, during which every single word of the novel was narrated on the stage of the Noel Coward theatre in an indefinable hybrid of play and audiobook, resulted in a standing ovation and four curtain calls for Elevator Repair Service, the valiant New York-based experimental theatre ensemble behind Gatz. Rebecca Mead captured its flavour in a piece for the New Yorker:
“Watching Gatz is a heightened version of reading the book oneself, including the same moments of riveted attention and mental wandering. Part of the power of Gatz may lie in the way in which it requires the audience’s submission to the exclusive experience of reading, without the distractions of family, television, laptop, or iPhone. Being shut up in a darkened theatre with Gatz is a strangely potent way to reproduce the increasingly elusive sensation of being enraptured by a book.”
There is much to celebrate in how Gatz explores the concept of reading. In a neurotically connected world, I love the inherently anti-social nature of books, and Gatz offers an update on traditional oral culture that allows us to ‘read together’ in a way that feels anything but reductive or intrusive. However, for me the show’s biggest pleasure – and provocation – was the opportunity it provided to consume the novel in one sitting: start to finish, uncut and uninterrupted, except for a dinner break which was itself inevitably dedicated to fervently rehashing characters, metaphors and memorably glowing lines.
I can remember every single novel I’ve swallowed whole – well, beyond a certain age, because as a child I did it too regularly to remark upon. Some, like The Great Gatsby, encourage a single binge through their brevity; classics such as Mrs Dalloway and Lord of the Flies or, more recently, Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach and Tim Winton’s Breath, are naturally bite-size reads. But I’ve also managed a few beefier marathons with the likes of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line Of Beauty, Robert Harris’s Pompeii and, in one wild, blear-eyed weekend bender, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Sure, I probably took the odd toilet break, muttered dismissals to family members and gobbled one-handed baked goods. I may even, in the case of Jonathan Strange, have slept for an hour or two. But these are the books that were basically able to consume my life until I was done consuming them.
Short stories don’t count, because they’re intended to be read that way. A whiff of subversion – decadence, even – is essential in reaching that deep state of imaginative suspension, where, by losing its control, time regains its majesty. Novels are defined by the passage of time needed to write and read them; their form cries out for cycles of change and hope, progress and decay. When you let them complete their full arc without interruption, your journey of discovery aligns with theirs, and your world is reshaped by their pace and their form. Within those precious non-hours of reading, novels literally reinvent time.
Your pattern recognition also becomes supersonic during a one-shot read. Making connections, be they logical, emotional, historical or intuitive, is the essential, and essentially humane, work of the brain, and one of the deep pleasures of literature. During Gatz I noticed all kinds of themes, rhythms and even individual words that thread through the text, and which hours of concentrated study would never have unearthed. These forewarnings, echoes and ironic transformations tied the tale into a dense, glittering whole, and showcased just how careful and artisanal Fitzgerald’s prose is. The sensation was akin to donning a full designer dress when previously I’d only been able to afford the belt.
Sadly, I know many people for whom the idea of dedicating whole days and nights to reading made-up stories is an outrageous indulgence for the holidaying, the hermitic, the heartbroken, but above all to those who are frankly a bit of a failure at real life. A couple of weeks ago, the cartoonist and essayist Tim Krieder nailed the zeitgeist with a column for the New York Times called ‘The Busy Trap’, in which he lampooned our competitive drive towards always-on, urgent activity. “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness;” Kriedner explained. “Obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”
Instead, he proposed a doctrine of noble idleness, which leaves room amongst the work for pondering, play, and – of course – some serious, uninterrupted reading. It’s a shocking suggestion for those of us who have been taught to treat multitasking as a moral imperative. But great minds from Virgil and Keats through to Arthur C Clarke have always emphasised the value of “diligent indolence” and I can attest that my brain is never more nimble and productive than on the rare occasions that I’m able to read straight through from frontispiece to epilogue. As a reader, you are truly able to enter Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s state of flow, “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.” And research suggests that this meditative yet challenging mindset might even benefit our physical health. Where’s the self-indulgence now?
So when was the last time you did the same? This summer, why not shut the door of the villa or erect a sunshade barricade on the beach and take the dive? I for one am going to institute more regular novel-binge evenings, weekends and yes, even gorgeous, defiant, midweek days. I don’t know about you, but it’s just what my increasingly impatient, always-on social scatterbrain is crying out for.
A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor