There is a distinct thread running through my childhood memories, and it is this: both of my grandmothers were major bookworms. My maternal grandmother, who I called Grandmama, had wide-ranging and catholic tastes, and liked nothing better than to stretch out on a lounge chair in her Long Island backyard, with a glass of lemonade (or wine) and a mystery novel or memoir with which to while away the afternoon. Grandmama had small bookshelves all over her house, and I used to saunter past each one, running my finger along the spines of the Harry Potter novels lined up by the front door or the travel books in the guest bedroom. She was a hardcore Anglophile and I definitely inherited my love of English literature from her.
My other grandmother, who I alternately called Grandma or Grandmother (she preferred Grandmother, but I too often forgot) was just as much of a bookworm, although her reading tastes were different. Grandmother introduced me to Anne Shirley, still a beloved bookish friend, but in general her preferences skewed toward meaty non-fiction (especially about the American Revolution) and historical novels – the longer, the better, and there was no such thing as too much detail. She loved it all. Grandmother kept most of her books on a tall, skinny shelf in the hallway between her two impeccably decorated guest bedrooms. And while I meandered past the shelf plenty, always on the hunt for something to read, I invariably came away with her blue and white copy of Anne of Green Gables in my hands. It was the most appealing thing on her shelf. (In my twenties, I discovered an 1890 edition of one of my favorite books – Jane Eyre – but it wasn’t on the shelf; it was on a sunroom table. Grandmother pressed it into my hands and it’s still one of my most treasured possessions.)
James A. Michener was one of Grandmother’s favorite authors. She had a line of his books – I remember Alaska and Hawaii for sure, those doorstoppers – and they always caught my eye, if for no other reason than they were just so extravagantly long. (I wonder if she ever read Poland? Being such a Michener fan, and so proud of her Polish heritage, I find it hard to believe that she would have missed that one, but I don’t recall her ever mentioning it, nor do I remember seeing her pull it out of her bag at the lake or spotting it on her shelf. It must have been there, though.) Anyway, Michener’s ability to churn out thousand-page novels at an apparently lightspeed clip fascinated me; as a young reader I subscribed wholeheartedly to C.S. Lewis’s views on long books. But for whatever reason, I never gave any of them a try.
A year or so ago, though, Chesapeake was on major discount on the kindle store. (I tend to buy ridiculously long books for my kindle; it’s a holdover from my days of commuting on Metro, when long books were only an option if stored digitally.) It seemed like a golden opportunity to finally try out one of Grandmother’s favorite authors, on my home turf. I downloaded the book and then saved it for the right time – pulling it out while relaxing in a camp chair on the side of a marsh (while camping in Chincoteague) seemed like the perfect fit. So I started Chesapeake on the Fourth of July, while the Assateague Island lighthouse blinked at me from across the marshy bay.
And I read. And read. And read. And read and read and read and read and read. The fourth of July turned to the fourth of August and I wasn’t even halfway through the book. It was engaging – following four Eastern Shore families (the Steeds, Paxmores, Turlocks and Caters) through the centuries. Chesapeake presented a broad tapestry of the entire sweep of American history from the first settlers during Elizabethan times, all the way to the environmentalists of the 1970s. And in order to do that – it was so. damn. long.
Not to say I didn’t enjoy it; I did. It was – as I said – engaging and interesting. I never really bogged down in it; every chapter held my attention, and some held my fancy. (The one from the perspective of migrating geese!) But it was just so long. Just so long. I like a long book; the longer the better, usually. But I found myself craving something shorter – anything shorter, really. I took a few breaks to read through library books before their return deadlines, but I kept coming back to Chesapeake, and each time I returned to the pages, I was more and more fatigued. And more than a little sad that my beloved grandmother’s favorite author had defeated me.
All this to say – I did finish, eventually! As July turned to August, I recommitted to the read and forbid myself any other books until I finally completed this journey. (Which in retrospect isn’t the best way to read, but it does work sometimes.) In the end, it was an odd reading experience. I found something to like on every page. Every chapter was interesting. And by the end, I was heartily sick of it all – turning with gratitude to Stella Gibbons’ The Swiss Summer, which my Grandmama would have loved.
I expect I will read Michener again – someday. I’m intrigued by Hawaii. But I’m going to need a very long break and a string of very short books before I pick up that one.
Have you ever read James A. Michener?