Unstringing the Bow

When editors of a book on the history of the Mexican novel asked me to contribute an essay on the longest books written during the 20th century, I accepted. There was no reason not to, and I was the right guy for the job. My work in historical fiction and high modernist fiction in Spanish America had certainly forced me to read a lot of ponderously hefty tomes, lovingly referred to in Mexico as mamotretos. It seemed like a good fit. And, frankly, I was flattered by the invitation.

Then I saw the list of books they wanted me to cover. Not a single one of them had less than 600 pages. Most weighed in around 750 pages. Crónica de la intervención by Juan García Ponce extended well beyond 1400 pages of cramped, miniscule font and had to be printed in two volumes. And it wasn’t just that they were long. They were complex, convoluted, and dense. These were the kind of novels that led Mark O’Connor, imagining a sort of “Long Novel Stockholm Syndrome,” to claim that

“Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and length is a version of climbing Everest for people who prefer not to leave the house. And people who climb Everest don’t howl with exhilaration at the summit because the mountain was a good or a well made or an interesting mountain per se, but because they’re overawed at themselves for having done such a fantastically difficult thing.”[1]

Over the years, I had read some, but not all, of them. I had homework to do. Then, to make matters worse, I realized that there were important books that hadn’t been included in the original list. So, I threw them into the mix as well. All told, the essay covered thirty of the longest novels I’ve ever read.

By the time I finished reading the new books and reviewing the ones I had previously read, I was finally able to understand the malady that afflicted Don Quixote. The narrator describes how the down-and-out nobleman—protagonist of arguably the first mamotreto—“became so absorbed in his books that he spent his nights from sunset to sunrise, and his days from dawn to dark, poring over them; and what with little sleep and much reading his brains got so dry that he lost his wits.”[2]

It was April 2022, and I was burned out. Totally, completely gassed. There were plenty of books to read. Stacks of them all over my office. But I did not want to touch anything even remotely related to work. At that point, I decided to return to my reading roots. I wanted some good old fashioned commercial detective fiction.

Growing up, there were worn copies of novels piled up on every flat surface in our home. My mother was an insatiable reader. She always had a book in her hand. On an average weekend, she would polish off two or three thrillers. Most of it was detective and spy fiction. Among her favorites were Tony Hillerman, Robert B. Parker, Robert Ludlum, John Sanford, James Patterson, Tom Clancy, and Eric V. Lustbader. Those books were full of cops, serial killers, secret agents, and ninjas. Yes, ninjas. None of these authors will ever make it into the annals of great world literature. But it was an adolescent boy’s dream library full of great stories.

I remember watching the trailer for John McTiernan’s Die Hard in the theaters and asking my mom if we could watch it. She said we could, but that I would have to read the novel first. As soon as we got home, I hounded her until she handed me a copy of Roderick Thorp’s Nothing Lasts Forever. That book went with me everywhere for a week. The same thing happened when Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs was announced. We went to the shelf, pulled down the copy of Thomas Harris’ book, and I dove in.

By the time I got to high school, novels accompanied me pretty much everywhere I went. I did myself no favors in the social arena by skipping lunch and hanging out in the library. But, the fact was that I was much more interested in what was going on in Robin Cook’s medical thrillers and Clive Cussler’s improbable adventure stories than the gossip floating around the lunch tables.

College and graduate school upended my reading habits somewhat. I had decided to focus on literature, so it only made sense that I delve into the biggest, most important books I could find. And, since I was specializing in literature from another country, I had a lot of catching up to do. No time for frivolous reading. Or so I thought. I eventually carved out time for Harry Potter novels after my wife convinced me, prior to the release of The Order of the Phoenix, to give them a try. I was reluctant at first because, as I then claimed, they were kids books and I was supposed to be reading “serious” literature. I read The Sorcerer’s Stone in one day and plowed through The Chamber of Secrets the next day. The Prisoner of Azkaban took me two or three days, and The Goblet of Fire took about a week. Needless to say, I was hooked. Since then, we have read every subsequent novel out loud together to avoid fighting over the copy.[3]

Fast forward to April 2022. I had just become aware of a new series on Amazon called Reacher, based on a series of thrillers written by Lee Child. I hadn’t thought much of the two Tom Cruise films based on the same books, but I decided to give it a try. I enjoyed it. It reminded me of the books I read as a kid. I thought about hunting down one of the novels. I was further encouraged when I discovered that two of my colleagues in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese were unapologetic Jack Reacher fans. Both mentioned, independent of each other, that they had read the entire series. I borrowed a copy of The Killing Floor from the library and blasted through it. I grabbed another. And another. By New Year’s Eve, I read 23 of the 24 original Lee Child books.[4]

For those unfamiliar with these novels or their large and small screen adaptations, Reacher is a retired military police officer who takes minimalist living to the extreme: his only possessions include a travel toothbrush, an outdated passport, and a bank card; instead of washing his clothes, he buys a new set every couple of days and throws the old one out. He drifts from town to town, riding buses, hitching rides, and sleeping in whatever cheap motel is close by.[5] Reacher allows chance to dictate where he’s heading and, inevitably, chance always places him smackdab in the middle of some criminal conspiracy that he must rectify. He defends the defenseless and metes out justice when law enforcement cannot or will not. And Jack Reacher always gets the girl.

Jack Reacher novels are not examples of world-class high art. They are commercial storytelling in its purest form. They are cranked out with industrial timing and precision. A reporter named Andy Martin followed Lee Child around for a year, documenting his habits, which include starting a new novel every September 1 with no plot and no idea where the story will end.[6] This flies in the face of everything we know about meticulous care that writers like James Joyce and Gabriel García Márquez take when structuring their masterpieces.

But they’re fun to read, and that’s the point. I didn’t have to pick them apart. I didn’t have to analyze their structure and poetic language. I didn’t have to worry about proving to eager undergraduates that they were worth the investment in money and time. I didn’t have to justify them to my colleagues here and abroad. I just had to read them and enjoy them.

This return to fun reading reminded me of something Truman Madsen related about Joseph Smith’s difficulty relaxing. Apparently, Joseph’s secretary Robert B. Thompson was a serious man who was not given to frivolity. The Prophet told Thompson that he needed to relax, to unwind a bit, or that he would die. Thompson responded that he could not; he died prematurely. Joseph, on the other hand, “learned to relax, and when chided for it he commented that if a man has a bow and keeps it constantly strung tight, it will soon lose its spring. The bow must be unstrung.”[7]

So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed or a little burned out, do yourself a favor and unstring the bow. Grab a good book. Not something that you “have to read.” Make it something that you want to read. Something fun. Enjoy it. Work reading will still be there when you come back.

This post was written by Brian Price, Professor of Spanish American Literature and Culture at BYU. 


[1] Mark O’Connor, “The Stockholm Theory of Long Novels.” The Millions (6 May 2011). https://themillions.com/2011/05/the-stockholm-syndrome-theory-of-long-novels.html

[2] Miguel de Cervantes, The History of Don Quixote. Trans. John Ormsby. Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/996/996-h/996-h.htm

[3] We were so committed that, when The Half-Blood Prince came out while we were living in Mexico City, we hustled down to a local chain called Gandhi and got a copy.

[4] Two quick caveats. First, technically I listened to these novels on audiobook while exercising, driving, and cleaning house. No regrets, totally worth it. Second, I say “original” because Child entered semi-retirement after the publication of Blue Moon in 2019. Semi-retirement, in this case, means that now cowrites the novels with his brother Andrew.

[5] Now, lest anyone think that I’m about to advocate a Reacherian minimalist lifestyle, I invite you to come see my office, which is cluttered with books, tchotchkes, guitars, and papers. One dear colleague, who shall remain nameless, recently chided me for my delightful chaos. Rest assured: I am in no danger of taking monkish vows of poverty.

[6] Andy Martin, “The Man with No Plot: How I Watched Lee Child Write a Jack Reacher Novel.” The Conversation (27 November 2015). https://theconversation.com/the-man-with-no-plot-how-i-watched-lee-child-write-a-jack-reacher-novel-51220

[7] Truman Madsen, “Joseph Smith Lecture 2: Joseph’s Personality and Character.” BYU Speeches (22 August 1978). https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/truman-g-madsen/joseph-smiths-personality-and-character/

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