October 09, 2011

Science-Fiction Free September VII update

Hadn't realized, until today, that I'd gotten lazy and let the end of September slip by. I'll frequently let the reading program slip into October, but generally by the end of September, I am thinking about how it all went.

To recap: Every September, I impose a personal moratorium on the reading of science-fiction books, because they are the mainstay of my reading habits for the rest of the year. It's an opportunity to broaden my horizons. This year, I decided to tackle a number of books that I had started at one point, but hadn't yet finished, in order:

  • Dead or Alive by Tom Clancy
  • Under the Dome by Stephen King
  • Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens, time permitting

For the first week or so of September, I finished off the book I was reading: L. Ron Hubbard's wannabe epic cum Scientology allegory Mission Earth. Once that was out of the way, I hastily switched up the order, out of convenience: since Les Mis was on my PalmPilot, it was easier to carry to work and read than the three-inch-thick Clancy tome.

Guess what I'm still reading.

OK—I knew this book was long. I just didn't realize how long. How very freaking long. Its word count is somewhere in excess of half a million words. By way of comparison, the King James Version of the Bible is around 800,000 words. The whole Bible. Printed, Les Misérables comes in at something like 1400 pages.

I missed this fact of history because I never got to pick up and weigh a copy in my hand. I'm reading an electronic edition I downloaded from Project Gutenberg; it's no bigger than a fraction of the capacity of my Palm.

The upshot: I started this book at approximately 10% completed. On Friday, I passed the 38% mark. In other words, it's taken me the better part of a month to read one-quarter of it. At this rate, I'll be reading Hugo until Christmas.

You know the problem? It's all the diversions. Hugo was not content to tell the story of Jean Valjean's redemption and his flight from the monomanaical Inspector Javert against the backdrop of the June Rebellion of 1832. No, he has to spend entire books (Les Mis was published in five volumes, each subdivided into books and then chapters) on little literary excursions: for exampe, his (admittedly vivid) retelling of the Battle of Waterloo, the history of an ascetic religious order, and the life of a Parisian gamin (street urchin). I'm in the middle of this last excursus now, having just started Volume 3: Marius.

I mentioned back in September that I had read an abridged edition: that was about an inch and a half thick itself, and I think it did away with all these sidebar discussions. Back in 1862, Hugo and his publisher took part in what has been called the shortest correspondence in history. Hugo, wanting to know how his book was selling, telegraphed: "?" His publisher replied: "!"

Imagine how Les Misérables might have been different if his editor had seen the cinderblock-sized manuscript on his desk and telegraphed: "?!"