I love spending the last hour before sleep curled up with a book. Few things stir my soul like a good story and a well-turned phrase. And when those things coexist in the same book? Magic. I recently enjoyed two books filled with both, even though the feel of them was completely different.
Most summers my husband and I tackle a literary classic that we somehow escaped school without reading. This summer’s assignment? George Eliot’s Middlemarch. A giant doorstop of a book (690 small font pages in the edition I read), Middlemarch follows the lives of an interconnected cast of characters in a provincial English town during the early 19th century. George Eliot – the pen name of Mary Anne Evans – doesn’t go easy on her readers in her part-Victorian/part-modern novel. She gives us neither the easy romance nor the neatly-packaged happy ending that so many of her female contemporaries did. Instead we see our two protagonists – wealthy, idealistic Dorothea Brooke and skeptical, scientific Tertius Lydgate – make profoundly bad choices from which she refuses to rescue them. Only time and compromise allow them to reach amended versions of contentment. Just as she doesn’t allow her characters easy answers, Eliot asks her reader to get to know a whole town, their biases and predilections, in order to understand her cast and their motivations.
If Middlemarch is a slow burn, then The Hunger Games is a quickie. I’m sure many of you have read or at least heard of Suzanne Collins’s best-selling young adult sci-fi trilogy, which features a witty and clever female protagonist. I’ll admit it: I wasn’t excited to read this book at first. When my local book club chose it as our September read, I was afraid I was about to be pushed back into Twilight territory. But instead of a moony protagonist who wiles away her time obsessing over her vampire boyfriend, Collins gives us a girl who is far too busy saving herself and her friends in a fight-to-the-death arena to think much about her beau’s twinkly skin. Katniss Everdeen is smart and tough (I suspect she could kick Bella’s butt without much trouble), even while showing believable vulnerability to the impossible circumstances that confront her. She is a believable teenage heroine and one of the better female role models I’ve seen created for young girls. And the story itself is propulsive: Collins drops you into the land of Panem and sets you free inside her cleverly realized dystopia ruled by a Machiavellian overlord.
I plowed through The Hunger Games, staying up way too late to read and sneaking in pages when I should have been focused on my kids. (Come on, we’ve all done it!) Meanwhile, it took me time to read Middlemarch; sometimes, I’ll admit it, it felt like a chore to have to read it. Then again, I breezed through The Hunger Games without marking a single passage. Don’t get me wrong: Collins is a great writer. But, in this book, at least, she’s not a beautiful one; there isn’t a sentence that invites you to curl up inside it. My copy of Middlemarch, on the other hand, holds a ticker tape parade of Post-It Notes in its margins. While Collins propelled me to the end of The Hunger Games with a furious story, Eliot spun language so full and so rich that I needed to stew in it awhile before moving on.
So which one was the better read? The quickie or the slow burn? It depends, of course, on what you’re looking for, how you’re feeling, what you enjoy. I will say that I finished The Hunger Games and immediately ordered the other two books in the series, both of which I finished within days of their arrival. The Mill on the Floss and Daniel Deronda, meanwhile, sit gathering dust on my bookshelf.
But my experience of devouring The Hunger Games trilogy while sometimes spurning Middlemarch left me wondered if we are being conditioned, we Tweeters and texters and Facebook status updaters, to value instant gratification over the slowly savored. Are we becoming culturally conditioned to want quick thrills at the expense of hard-earned enlightenment?
Which do you tend to read more of: quickies or slow burns? Which do you usually enjoy more?