The Being of Books

The Italian novelist Italo Calvino explained in a lecture that his "working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight." This explains why his works are short and so, well, weightless, in the same way that Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, Mann's Death in Venice, and Stein's Q.E.D. are also weightless. I mean "weightless" as an assessment of physical, not intellectual, substance: Mrs. Dalloway, Death in Venice, and Q.E.D. are heavy, if heavy means important, but when you hold them in your hand you can't help but notice that they are so light.

"Lightness" is the name of the aforementioned Calvino lecture, published in 1985's Six Memos for the Next Millennium, and in it he argues that lightness is more virtuous than weight. He writes that "throughout the centuries two opposite tendencies have competed in literature: one tries to make language into a weightless element that hovers above things like a cloud or better, perhaps, the finest dust or, better still, a field of magnetic impulses. The other tries to give language the weight, density, and concreteness of things, bodies, sensations." Calvino, partial to the former, views literature as "the search for lightness as a reaction to the weight of living."

It strikes me as fitting that novels possessed of lightness, of that "weightless element," are often physically small. Too often people confuse the quality of a meal with the quantity of the portion. I bring this up this week because, while my general anti-Harry Potter stance is firmly rooted in the belief that great literature derives not from premise (as Harry Potter books do) but from character, my specific excuse for eschewing Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is that it's too fucking long.

I like slim lovers and I like slim books--books that are specific, buoyant, and agile, like Mrs. Dalloway, Death in Venice, and Q.E.D. , as well as Kafka's Metamorphosis, Camus' Stranger, Chopin's Awakening, and Nabokov's Pnin. What's so beguiling about these books is that in spite of their brevity, they give way to so much unexpected and improbable expansion.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has probably saved the book industry, but to me it has the subtlety and charm of a cinderblock. At 870 pages, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is longer than Mrs. Dalloway, Death in Venice, Q.E.D. , The Metamorphosis, The Stranger, The Awakening, and Pnin--combined. As for lightness, or lack thereof, a test I conducted on a QFC produce scale over the weekend revealed Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to be two and five-eighths pounds--equivalent in weight to seven kiwis, an apple, and a mango.

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