Uncategorized | July 29, 2011

In elementary school, I was a Battle of the Books all-star. That annual quiz competition continues to this day. Students must demonstrate that they have read at least a handful of titles from a list of 30 selected books in order to try out for their school’s team. I always read the entire list. This made me a great asset to the team in the writing of trivia questions (to be used in our practice rounds and in scrimmages against other schools) and, of course, in answering them. I still remember some of those questions: the outrage I felt, for example, when another school got a point for the answer “peanut butter and jelly” instead of “peanut butter and Jell-o” (Question: what kind of sandwich does Angeline eat in Louis Sachar’s Someday Angeline?) My rigorous Battle of the Books training perhaps also explains why I still am able to remember minutia from books longer and better than I can more significant details (endings, characters’ names, etc.).

I was reminded of these days recently when I learned about the Melville House Book’s Art of the Novella Reading Challenge. The Challenge was inspired by Nonsuch Book blogger Frances Evangelista, who plans to read and review all 42 of the novellas published by Melville House during the month of August. The rest of us are invited to try to keep up with her. You can claim to be Curious, Obsessed, a Bibliomaniac and anything in between based on the number of titles you’ve read—but Melville House plans to award prizes at random to those bloggers linking to the contest page. I like this aspect of the challenge: reading/buying more Melville House books doesn’t increase your chances of winning a prize.

In my old age, I also appreciate that Melville House Reading Challenge doesn’t materially reward speed-reading. Back in the day, I was a fast reader for a 5th or 6th grader. That’s probably still true; I’ll challenge any 12-year-old to a reading race. For an academic, however, I read at a distressingly slow pace. I can tell you right now that there’s no way I’d get through 42 novellas in a month, or at least not without striking all other pursuits from my calendar. I’m not even sure I could read 42 short stories in a month. But earlier this summer, I did go on a brief novella-reading tear of my own. None of those titles—Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, Lan Samantha Chang’s Hunger, Claire Messud’s “A Simple Tale”—gets me anywhere in Melville House’s challenge. However, there was a distinct pleasure, for this slow reader, in polishing off an actual book in one sitting. This isn’t quite the immersive reading experience that Sarah Strong wrote about so evocatively in her Harry Potter post: reading a short novel, you’re always aware that the end is coming soon. Still, I was intrigued to find that all three of the randomly-selected novellas I read condensed a great deal of time into a relatively short number of pages—even when, as in McEwan’s work, a single evening served as the focal point of the book. The compression of the novella creates its own kind of transport.

I carried on my own personal novella challenge yesterday by reading Stuart Dybeck’s “Four Deuces,” in the latest issue of A Public Space. At 42 journal pages, the piece looks more like a long story, which is how it’s now described on the journal’s website—but I swear the word “novella” was up there when I ordered my copy. Regardless, the piece is another example of a short form covering a long swath of time. “Four Deuces” is styled as a one-sided conversation between Rose, a bar owner, and Rafael, a young patron. Rose does all the talking, with Rafael’s questions and actions implied here and there by shifts in her monologue. Set in Chicago, narrated in a voice by turns poetic and crude, the piece has lots of Dybek’s characteristic elements; the most satisfying of these is its ending. The ending of “Four Deuces” brings to a close an increasingly-drunken, one-sided conversation—the kind so difficult to extract one’s self from in real life—while also managing to do justice to the complicated love story that impels Rose’s confession, the complicated character that is Rose. The piece made it instantly onto the reading list for my fall graduate workshop. Slow readers are welcome to sign up.