Yesterday, I took a break from my seemingly interminable reading of Michael Slater's biography of Dickens to read a short, exquisite novel, THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR, by the Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa. It was recommended to me by my sister, Barbara, whom I always think of as my big sister, because she is three years older than I, even though she is actually a good deal shorter. The Dickens biography has only about six times as many words as the novel [I counted], but it is taking me forever to get through. As I think I have observed, I have written books in less time than I am reading this one. By the way, I have just finished the chapter in which Slater, with great reserve and a meticulous fidelity to the sources, recounts the rather scrimy sequence of events by which Dickens dumped his wife of twenty some years and the mother of his ten children. Dickens, I am sad to say, was a pig.
Anyway, the contrast between the two books [and between my sister and me] got me thinking about long and short. I write short books. Indeed, several of my books have fewer words than a law journal article by my son, Tobias. [Law professors, for reasons that escape me, refer to these excessively documented monstrosities as "notes."] My Memoir was far and away the longest thing I have ever written, and that is only about 800 pages in double spaced typescript, which probably means that it is maybe two-thirds the length of the Dickens biography. Even my first and most ambitious book, KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, is a modest 336 pages, with many fewer words on each page than the Dickens epic.
Some people seem to run on, whatever they are doing. Think of Whitman in comparison to Dickinson, Samuel Richardson in comparison to Jane Austen, Piero Sraffa in comparison to Marx, or Mahler in comparison to anyone. This is true even of personal styles -- Stanley Cavell compared to Rogers Albritten.
There is nothing particularly important or profound about this observation. I prefer Dickinson to Whitman and Austen to Richardson, but I also prefer Marx to Sraffa [although they are both very great thinkers]. Actually, this post is just a bit of procrastination. The Dickens biography sits there next to my keyboard, silently reproaching me for ignoring it, and I am trying to postpone the moment when I heft it [it must way ten pounds] and stagger on towards page 500. I am, for some reason, incapable of skimming, and to leave a book only half-read feels like a moral failing.
Sigh. Duty calls.