Scope & The Subway Test

I recently—much behind the rest of the world, it seems—discovered Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a thousand-page alternate history fantasy epic that reads like a mashup of Harry Potter and War and Peace. I loved it, in the particular way we love a long book rather than a short one—dazed, glassy-eyed, living half inside the world of the book as we move through our actual reality. It put me in mind of a minor but memorable point made in Kate McIntyre’s recent piece “The Desert Island Novel: A Small Place for Big Characters,” in The Missouri Review’s Summer 2015 issue, when McIntyre notes that “the expansive novel is enjoying a moment”:

Somehow, a big novel’s length aids what Coleridge calls readers’ “willing suspension of disbelief,” the surrender to the world of a text, no matter the improbabilities.  I spend so long with a big book, I no longer remember that I’m reading. The physicality of the page dissolves, and I forget about my self, too. It’s the closest I come to an out-of-body experience. When I finish reading a big novel, I’m left bereft, as if I have lost something dear. And I have: the world of the novel is so much more compelling, and maybe even much more knowable, than the real world.

These are strong words, and might feel hyperbolic—unless you’ve just had the experience that McIntyre describes. This happened to me with Clarke’s book, and has happened a few other times recently—with David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and with Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House—a novel with the seemingly modest scope of a single family, but which feels epic since the family in question includes thirteen adult children. I seem to be reading this type of novel more and more frequently, and I think it comes down to a version of what my friend CJ calls “the subway test”—the radical shift in expectations that occurs when a reader is turning to a book during a commute via public transportation. CJ casually articulates the subway test: “Did this book make my commute more bearable? Yes? Then hooray for this book.”

The question of scope doesn’t quite map over the subway test, since there are wonderful, bearable, and terrible books of every length and subject matter. But it’s true that since much of my reading is done on the train these days, I’m more eager than usual to find books that play out on an epic scale, or else at an epic length—something I can get sucked into for long enough to almost miss my stop.

It’s interesting to consider all the ways our working lives affect our reading habits and writing processes—and from there, to use that awareness to manipulate them.