Motherhood and the Long Read

I feel a bit lowbrow and pedestrian writing about this struggle, but what the hell, I can’t be the only mom out there that feels this way.  Here’s the dilemma: now that I have children, I find myself struggling to read long books.  I consider a book long if it is over 500 pages (and longish if it is over 300 pages).  Before I had kids, I absolutely loved the challenge of reading a long book.  It started many years ago, when, as a preteen, I made my way through Gone With the Wind.  My very favorite long books are Middlemarch and Bleak House.  I have not read the epitome of long books, War and Peace, but I certainly intend to someday.

Now, with a three-year old and an infant, finding time to read anything, long or short, is a challenge.  Conquering a long book seems impossible most days.  Making my way through Middlemarch would probably take up the rest of my reading time for 2011.  (Hell, I consider The Cat in the Hat a “long” book most days, and if you haven’t read it multiple times a day to a kid, don’t try to tell me it isn’t!)  And yet, when I turn to books that I know will be easier for me, I often find I’m making a mistake.  Shamefully, I will admit that soon after my second son was born I read the book Sweet Valley Confidential.  It was completely awful.  But it was short, mindless fluff, and was all I could really handle during those long sleepless nights with a newborn.  Still, I felt a bit dumber for having read it (and it left me wondering how much I had rotted my brain with the numerous volumes of Sweet Valley High I read as a tween).

(N.B. All this is not to say that long books=good quality and short books=bad quality; obviously the contrapositive can be true, but in many if not most cases, I believe it is easier to work though a short book versus a long book based on the amount of time one must devote to finishing it.)

So, once we emerged from the difficult fourth trimester, I decided it was time to tackle something a little more complex than Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield’s banal travails.  I had long wanted to read Sophie’s Choice by William Styron.  I was curious what it had to say about motherhood (knowing in advance of Sophie’s gut-wrenching “choice” ).  When I picked it up from the library, though, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to read it.  It is 599 pages, and surely I didn’t have the stamina to complete it.  Moreover, it isn’t fluff in the least.  It is intense and meandering, and requires some fortitude to plow through Stingo’s rambling monologue.  So Sophie’s Choice sat unread on the table while I instead read The Weird Sisters.

Eventually, though, I was out of other reading material and Sophie was sitting there waiting for me.  I picked it up and read the first chapter, and found myself completely mesmerized.  This book was different.  It was a book ostensibly about Sophie, but here in the first chapter we don’t hear much about Sophie at all.  We meet the narrator, the young Southerner known only as Stingo, trying to make it as a writer in postwar New York City.  I was pleasantly confounded.  I liked Stingo, since he wanted to write and also because he proved constitutionally unfit to work in an office environment (I feel the same way about myself most days).  But what did he have to do with Sophie? And what would this twenty-two year old bundle of hormones have to say about motherhood (my point in reading the book)?

It turns out that Sophie’s Choice didn’t have much to say about motherhood at all.  We don’t realize that Sophie was a mother until about halfway through the book, and we discover that she had not one, but two children until about three-quarters of the way though.  Despite this, I kept reading.  It turned out that Sophie’s Choice is about plenty of other interesting things.  Of course, it is a Holocaust novel, but it is hardly only that.  It is a true New York story, set in postwar Manhattan and Brooklyn, and I can never resist a good story about my own city.  It’s also a coming of age story for Stingo, to be sure.  If anything, this book is about Stingo, not Sophie.  In fact, Stingo really purloined Sophie’s story and annexed it to his own (though this fraught discussion would require another entire entry, at least).  The book examines Stingo’s development as a writer, his identity as a Southerner in New York City, and his sexual awakening.  Moreover, the novel depicts the devastating impact of mental illness (post traumatic stress syndrome for Sophie, as a Holocaust survivor, and schizophrenia for Sophie’s lover, the volatile Nathan Landau).

Reading on, and finding the book to be a treasure trove of interesting threads and themes, I made myself reading assignments so I could finish the book by its due date.  Is this inexcusably lame, to assign oneself reading as if in a college literature course?  Oh well.  I needed to impose some structure in order manage the book (and, frankly, convince myself that reading a 599 page book could be done, if slowly and in small chunks).  My assignments required reading about 60 pages a day.  Of course, life intervened, and I missed my self-imposed deadline (I renewed the book), but eventually — and only a few days off “deadline” –I did finish it.

I’m quite pleased I was able to finish Sophie’s Choice, even if it is on the “short” side of “long” at only 599 pages. Will I be reading War and Peace next?  Well, no.  I think I’ll wait on that one.  But I’m not going to shy away from a long read, and miss a valuable book, just because I’m scared of a thick tome.



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