You might think that reading books like War and Peace or Moby Dick necessarily takes patience. It takes a long time to read them after all. The thing is, how long something takes to do says very little about how much patience is required to do it. CS Lewis famously quipped that there was no book long enough nor cup of tea large enough to suit him.
Amen to that. No impatience there.
As I recall, the first time I read War and Peace it took about ten days. I was sixteen or seventeen at the time and wanted to watch the BBC adaptation starring Anthony Hopkins, which was new to me, but already 25 years old in itself. I have never been able to cope with seeing a film based on a book I haven’t read. (With a few exceptions, at least half the fun in watching a film adaptation is in complaining about what they got wrong.) I remember finding Pierre and Natasha, and most of the other characters, extremely irritating, but I don’t remember the book trying my patience especially. It was a nice way to nip to Russia, really.
Though, “nip” may be the wrong metaphor for the 580,000 words of astoundingly non-repetitive narrative. By comparison, fellow classics like Moby Dick and Crime and Punishment only manage 206,000 and 211,000 words respectively. To put these numbers in a contemporary context, modern fiction ranges from 70,000 to 120,000 words, depending on the genre (and excluding from reckoning the work of Neal Stephenson and George RR Martin, whose 300,000 word sagas would skew the statistics). Even Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which absolutely everyone agrees is too long (even for fantasy, which runs longest), comes in at just under 200,000 words. The longest novel I’ve had across my desk as an editor was 135,000 words, and it didn’t stay that way. So, War and Peace is, uh, something else.
Verbosity notwithstanding, there is nothing in Tolstoy’s epic that tries one’s patience quite like the PD Eastman classic Go, Dog. Go!, a book which is roughly 579,700 words shorter than War and Peace, but nonetheless held my attention hostage from mid-2009 through until 2018.
For those unfamiliar with this book, let me explain the whirlwind of a plot to you: there are dogs. Lots of dogs. Multi-colored dogs (so Gentle Reader can practice colours). Unaccountably, these dogs drive cars (Gentle Reader finds this very exciting), stop and go at red and green lights as appropriate (so Gentle Reader can learn opposites and road safety), luxuriate on houseboats (so Gentle Reader can learn aspiration), exchange frank views on haberdashery (so Gentle Reader can learn that even dogs are mean about what you wear, no matter how carefully you choose your outfit), and finally have a rollicking party — or, to be precise, “A dog party! A big dog party! Big dogs, little dogs, red dogs, blue dogs, yellow dogs, green dogs, black dogs and white dogs are all at a dog party! What a dog party!”– all atop a tree (so Gentle Reader can learn to cut loose after a long day of drilling opposites and debating millinery).
I laughed, I cried, it was better than…Cats? No, strike the last. 2020 doesn’t need another layer of controversy. It is an adequately charming tale. Leave it at that.
Except that I can’t leave it at that. Because none of my children could leave it at that, and by the 6,728,453rd reading the charm was actually wearing thin. Even having my squirrely toddlers under near-perfect voice control at street crossings — “Stop, dogs, stop! The light is red now!…Go, dogs, go! The light is green now!” — was small compensation for thrice-daily treetop dog parties.
My mother frequently reminds me that patience never comes without a lot of practice. She would also want me to acknowledge that there was a time when, to her chagrin, I too loved nothing more than a treetop dog party, but that is by the by. Somewhere between my infancy and my maternity I lost the delight in repetition that is native to children; and patience in everyday life is less about simple forbearance than it is about the ability to delight in monotony that would usually drive us to carelessness, frustration, and inattention.
Even having my squirrely toddlers under near-perfect voice control at street crossings — “Stop, dogs, stop! The light is red now!…Go, dogs, go! The light is green now!” — was small compensation for thrice-daily treetop dog parties.
We tend to associate the desire for repetition with an undeveloped mind. GK Chesterton instead saw something divine in the childlike insistence on thrice-daily dog parties:
Because children have abounding vitality…they always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
To be able to find the same joy in the same thing the hundredth, thousandth, or millionth time we do it that we did the first time is a talent very rare indeed in adults. And I do mean joy or delight, not just comfort or a detached sort of calm: fully engaged, fully participatory joy. What reading Go, Dog. Go! eleventy-two-bajillion times taught me is that I lack this virtue. I’d say ‘thank God for the lessons of suffering,’ except that I already knew this about myself. Frankly, if even 100,000 of the 580,000 words of War and Peace had just been Go, Dog. Go! written out again and again, I never would have gotten through it.
I laughed, I cried, it was better than…Cats?
Perhaps I will get it right the next time around. My mother tells me my four-year-old nephew is in the heart of the Go, Dog. Go! phase, and loves to read it with her. He will stop and go at the quotation of the relevant lines — the light is red now! the light is green now! — unless he’s tired of that game. Then he will look my mother in the eye and declare “No, Grammy, the light is purple now.” Amen, I say. This kid is going places. Or not. Who knows what you’re supposed to do when the light is purple?
Victoria Seed is a writer and editor; she works in publishing.
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