About ten years ago I belonged to one of those big "book clubs." You know the ones. They send you a brochure every month. You can choose the selection for that month, or order something else from the catalog by sending in the little card that accompanies the brochure. If you don't send in the little card advising you do NOT want the selection of the month, it is automatically sent to you (and charged to your credit card.) It is a very successful marketing model since it taps into the fact that so many of us are (a) procrastinators, (b) forgetful, or (c) so disorganized we will lose the little card and never find it before the deadline runs out. That is how I originally came to own the hardbound version of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I had never heard of it, wasn’t interested in it, and lifted it up to a bookshelf where its substantial girth took up considerable real estate. I looked upon it as another unnecessary financial outlay and resolved to mend my disorganized, forgetful and procrastinating ways. But then my eldest child came to visit.
He was an early reader, having taught himself (apparently, because I didn’t teach him) at the age of 3. I used to joke I bought him books by the pound rather than by storyline. The bigger and heftier the book, the happier my boy. He saw Jonathan Strange on the shelf, had heard the buzz, and with my blessing took it with him when he left. I never thought of it again. Fast forward 9 years.
There are times when I am absolutely driven to find and read a book. I usually can’t remember what triggers the obsession. In the case of Jonathan Strange I may have heard that BBC America was about to unleash a TV series based upon it. But I’m a little vague on that as well. In any event, I placed myself in the library queue. I was first in line and I could have waited. But when it wasn’t ready by the second day I simply couldn’t stand the suspense any longer. I ordered the paperback version from Barnes & Noble, which promised to have it delivered within 3 business days – free shipping. When a book weighs in at over 1000 pages, free shipping clinches the deal to my way of thinking.
I’ve been dragging this doorstop of a book around with me for 11 days. To the car wash, to the car dealership, to the hair salon, to the bank, to the office. Wherever and whenever I think I’ll have the slightest minute of downtime. I’ve left it (reluctantly) behind when I know it would be inexcusably rude to pull it out to read (like at lunch with a friend), or just plain wrong (like church). But I have to admit, it’s painful.
I’ve been trying to take it slow; that’s not easy. It is so completely absorbing I really have to force myself to put it down and step away from it. I am a little over half-way finished and I’m already feeling a little panicked. At this rate, it will all be over in another week. And then what shall I read? “Will anything ever be this good again?” I ask myself. When I've read the last page and closed the back cover, I expect it will take a long time to find another book that I can live in. Oh yes,yes, I know. I hear you thinking, “Isn’t she being a bit dramatic.” No. I am not. In fact, I will go further. There are words that have been invented to describe a book like this. They include “magnificent,” “inventive,” “unique,” “mesmerizing,” intelligent,” “eloquent,” “enchanting,” “meticulous.” Dear me. I am slobbering, aren’t I.
I’ve been having a lot less luck with the TV series. It airs on Saturday at 10:00 p.m. I am an early riser who finds it difficult to stay up past 9:00 p.m. A hopeless wimp to whom New Year’s Eve is the day when people call me at midnight, waking me from peaceful slumber wishing me to be happy and creating the opposite effect. I made it through about 15 minutes of Episode 1, was completely zonked out before Episode 2 even started, but am determined to put up a fight when Episode 3 rolls around tomorrow. Hot coffee, sharp objects, an ice bath. Figuring out whether I get “BBC America On Demand” is another option. Although the remote scares me. Or there is always the option of ordering the first season on DVD when made available
How is it that a book of this length seems too short? The fact that the writing style remains consistent and sharp throughout is in itself a marvel, but it is the imaginative building of the story line –episode by episode - that is truly remarkable. The novel is peppered with footnotes – some several pages long – which one would think would be terribly distracting when, in fact, they add immeasurably to the back story. One can say it is a literary alchemy of sorts which, since the book is about magic, is just as it should be.
I must remember to ask my son if he ever read the book. The one I wish I’d have hidden under the sofa rather than leave it exposed on the bookshelf to be purloined by a book usurper. The one I should have grabbed back while growling, “Get your own copy.” After all, there are limits to the sacrifices a mother must or should make for her children.
This, my friends, is the book I wish I could have written and I can’t give it higher praise that that.