Learning to Love Really Long Books

Accept that you will never truly finish them

A man, a student or a businessman is flipping over a large book. Vector Illustration Hand drawing do...
Tom Whyman

Don’t all clap at once, but I recently finished reading The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil’s much-vaunted, little-read novel of ideas. If you don’t know it, it’s a work which parodies the political and intellectual milieu of the pre-WW1 Vienna in which Musil came of age, while also putting forward something of the author’s own uncompromisingly modern ideas about knowledge, morality, and the self; ideas which chime with those of contemporaries such as Husserl, Wittgenstein, and Walter Benjamin, while also anticipating the likes of Deleuze & Guattari.

In addition to the fun facts listed above, The Man Without Qualities is also huge. The version I read comprises 1130 pages – pages which kept falling out as I read it, impossible to contain within the physical laws of the paperback book. When I started reading it, I thought: there is absolutely no way I’ll ever finish this. My original aim was to get to the end of Volume 1, around the page 700 mark. As it happened, I found it a lot more compelling than I’d expected. I also started reading it around the same time as I resolved to delete the Twitter app from my phone, which for some mysterious reason has left me able to concentrate on things for much longer stretches of time. I kept reading, past the start of Volume 2 – which luckily happens to be the most obviously, viscerally enchanting section of the book, right when you’re probably starting to flag – and onwards, persisting to the very last page.

I finished my copy of The Man Without Qualities. And yet – my original instinct was still correct. There was never any way that I was going to finish The Man Without Qualities. Because the thing is, nobody can ever finish a Really Long Book like this.

Musil’s novel is paradigmatic of the literary phenomenon of the Really Long Book, a phenomenon with which I have long been fascinated. My fascination, I suppose, is rooted in a sort of childish delusion about such works. When I was a little kid, just starting to learn to read, I would look at the books on my parents’ bookshelves – consider the cover art, and the titles on the spines, and try to figure out what they were about. I would compare these objects to the sorts of books that I read – slim things with pictures, usually held together at the back with staples, about men who were letters or colors, or about mice who learned to share – and attempt to comprehend in some way the significance of a book that could be 600, 700, even 1000 pages long. Imagine such a thing! Imagine how substantial it must be; imagine how profound the wisdom must be that it contained. The length of these books stood, for me, as a sort of justification: with every additional word, every additional page, I was sure that all the others would come to mean more.

When I was around 7 or 8, I remember deciding to attempt the biggest book I dared lay hold of: an Asimov novel called Nemesis, which I’ve always remembered as having around 700 pages, but which a quick Google reveals has just under 500 (still, that seemed almost unimaginably long to me then). I remember setting out on Nemesis with a great sense of voyage, as if I were about to discover something in it that would set the entire rest of my life in order. And then, it just… well, it wasn’t really anything. I know I finished it, but that was all. I remember feeling proud that I got through it. Today, I have no real recollection of it, beyond my own deflated expectations. It was just a pretty dull, by-the-numbers science fiction book. It left no mark.

This was a disappointment – but it was also educational. This experience with Asimov was what gave me my first inkling of the true significance of the Really Long Book. A book is not Really Long because it is especially profound, or even because it is profound at all. Profundity is found in short, crystalline, easily encompassable things: in novellas or short stories, or staccato works of philosophy like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, whose depths are obvious, because one is able to take in the whole of their surface. A book is Really Long because there is something essentially stupid about it, something broken: its length is the product of the writer having no ultimate clue how to say what they want to be saying. Its length is often glorious – but it is also an admission of failure.

The Man Without Qualities is often referred to as an “unfinished” work, and that’s part of what’s going on here: Musil was still working on it at the time of his death. The edition that I read, published by Picador, comprises the two volumes of the book which Musil agreed to have published in the early 1930s, short the 20 chapters he demanded be withdrawn from the galley proofs of the second volume at the last minute. A different edition is available, published in three volumes, which contains the withdrawn chapters, as well as a range of scattered drafts and notes. But even if I had read that, I would still not have come close to exhausting the work as such: apparently it is possible to purchase a CD which contains still thousands of more pages of alternate versions of the novel as it has come to exist, as yet untranslated from the original German. In a brief Introduction to the edition I own, the novelist Jonathan Lethem aptly describes The Man Without Qualities as “the literary equivalent of what the ecological critic Timothy Morton calls a ‘hyperobject’, whose precise boundaries in space and time are impossible to measure.”

Its length is often glorious – but it is also an admission of failure.

So this is not just a novel that is simply unfinished, as a shorter work might be if the novelist happened to have died mid-chapter, but with a clear plan for how it might have eventually gone. It is an object that is constitutively unfinishable. Perhaps, indeed, the unfinishability is the point. Musil worked on the thing for over 20 years, published whole large chunks of it within his lifetime, and still didn’t know how the plot might be satisfactorily resolved. “Volume One closes at the high point of an arch,” the author is reported to have said. “On the other side it has no support.”

In fact there could be no satisfactory resolution to any of it. What is masterful about The Man Without Qualities is the way in which Musil constantly gives the sense of something momentous being about to happen, when nothing ever does. This is a novel of grand plans, in which no-one is quite sure what they’re supposed to be planning; a novel of scandalous flirtations, in which no one, ultimately, is down to fuck. At some point, of course, one knows that the whole milieu in which the novel takes place is bound to be exploded by the War. But to actually depict the onset of War, this great and sudden Event, would be for Musil to betray everything he had written beforehand: the supreme sense he conjures throughout of anxious stasis – of teetering at the edge of a moral, political, historical and epistemological abyss.

Many of the best Really Long Books are ruins like Musil’s novel – I think also of its Habsburg-collapse cousin The Good Soldier Švejk: a very different book in terms of tone and focus, but also one which could never really have been satisfactorily ended, because its logic would not admit of the end of the war which The Man Without Qualities could not allow to begin. Others make of their length a performative joke: Tristram Shandy’s endless ramblings around his book’s ostensible subject; Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript, a book whose clearly stated aim is to make everything more difficult for its reader, and which is around six times the length of the work it is supposed to be a “postscript” to. Infinite Jest, whose actual plot unfolds just outside the formidable text of the novel.

Really Long Books inadvertently function as encyclopedias (like Moby-Dick), or make less rather than more sense as they go on (like Gravity’s Rainbow - although who knows maybe that ends up making perfect sense by the end, as despite attempting it multiple times, the first when I was 18, I’ve never reached the final page), or both begin and remain in senselessness (like Finnegan’s Wake), or would be a lot easier to understand if they’d been written in a different order (Marx used to tell people to read Capital starting with chapter 10 then return to chapters 1-9 later), or contain an almost unmappable surfeit of additional material (Schopenhauer appended not only one but two volumes of essays to The World As Will and Representation, a work he had initially intended as the exhaustive exposition of “a single thought”).

Not all very long books are Really Long Books – Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain would love to be a Really Long Book, both in terms of its word count (vast) and its themes (a sick Europe on the brink of War; the dazzling passage of empty time). But it isn’t one – because in the end, the whole thing is all-too neat: Hans Castorp completes his education in the sanatorium and (of course) dies finally and ironically in the War. By contrast, some relatively short books have a Really Long soul: think of Kafka’s novels, which in their unfinished state invariably convey a sense of their true, effectively endless length (you will never be admitted to the castle; your case will never go to trial).

People will often wear their frustration with books like this as a badge of pride: literary types in broadsheet interviews, acknowledging that they could never finish Moby-Dick with gleeful shame; the semi-regular phenomenon of “my terrible ex-boyfriend kept insisting I read Infinite Jest.” The entire British broadsheet press coming down on Jeremy Corbyn for claiming to enjoy Ulysses. In part, of course, this is just the idiot smugness endemic to those who’ve had too much expensive education: if I don’t understand it, I of all people, then that means it has to be bad. But as a failed criticism, this line of thought is interesting, because even though it misses the mark by miles, it almost gets things exactly right.

Of course you don’t really understand any given Really Long Book. You don’t – because no one truly can. These are not finished things, these are not self-contained things. There is no one single, clear and obvious thing that they are telling us. If nothing else, these things take so long for you to read them, that they worm their way completely into your life as you do so; you will be different every time that you approach them. If you ever think you’ve finished a Really Long Book, you have not understood it. If it contains any sense at all, then this sense is something that you will keep on returning to – revising, over and over again, throughout your life. At their best, these texts are every bit as opaque as the self. A true Really Long Book is something that you’re never done with.

Tom Whyman is a philosopher and writer who lives in the North East of England. His first book, Infinitely Full of Hope: Fatherhood and the Future in an Age of Crisis and Disaster was published earlier this year.