17 January 2012

Macro- and micro-novels

Many years ago I worked my way through a macro-novel called Centennial by James Michener. It was the kind of marcro-novel that Michener became famous for. It was one of a number of macro-novels I plowed through long ago. [The last one was probably Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth. Or maybe Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (okay, it wasn't a novel, but it read like one).]

By macro-novel, I mean a novel (or history) that takes a wide view of "life, the universe, and everything." (See Douglas Adams' Life, the Universe and Everything. Michener begins his historical novel about Colorado with geology and lots of anthropology. Follett writes about the generations who built a cathedral. Tuchman writes about the Black Death, the Hundred Years' War, religious politics, peasant uprisings, aristocratic politics, and the Little Ice Age. They are huge books that include enough ideas, characters, and stories to hold my interest for a long time.

I thought of Centennial twice recently. The first time was when I had a bad cold and cough. I went looking for tea and the local grocery store didn't carry lapsong souchong. I had fond memories of lapsong souchong from the time I read Centennial. Michener described how French fur traders in 18th century Colorado carried bricks of lapsong souchong. So I had to try it. I found it easily, but I was living in the big city then. Now, I'm shopping in a small town grocery store. Oh well, I found a soothing tea that worked to relieve my throat.

The second time I thought of Centennial was when I began reading Susan Vreeland's Luncheon of the Boating Party. The reason I thought of Michener's tome was that Vreeland's book is a micro-novel as opposed to Michener's macro-novel. Almost everything in the first half of the book took place in the head of Auguste Renoir. Vreeland paints some images of late 19th century Paris and illustrates some characteristics of Renoir, but there isn't much in the way of stories.

By the time I got to the middle of the book, I was tired of reading about Renoir's struggles to gather his models, get them to sit still, manage his love life, worry about the light... I would much rather have read a treatise about Renoir's painting or an analysis of Luncheon of the Boating Party. I would have much preferred to go to Washington, D.C. to see the painting and some of its contemporaries.

I quit reading the book and put it on the pile to be returned to the library.

Jeanette Hohman is a 92-year old acquanintance and reader of this blog (when I send her print outs). She asked not long ago why I read so few things besides mysteries. I replied that I was lazy and that mysteries are usually easy (Kate Atkinson, perhaps an exception). I should have added that I read a lot of serious stuff about government and politics -- including lots of news from six selected countries (you're probably fortunate that I write about that on a separate blog). And, I should have added that experiences like trying to read micro-novels like Vreeland's, Connie Willis' science fiction, Per Petterson's micro-novel, and even James Gleick's The Information, send me back to mysteries.

That's what I'm going to do. I'm going to pick up the Charles Todd mystery I got at the library. But, thinking about the macro-novels that I still have fond memories of, maybe I should devote a couple months to reading to something like Follett's World Without End (I've heard it's good). I've also heard good things about Edward Rutherford's London (a sequel to Sarum, another macro-novel which was based on an exhibit I saw at the City of London Museum).

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