A publisher sent me, unsolicited, a very large novel to review – “or just to enjoy!” [italics and exclamation point in the original], as the accompanying letter thoughtfully suggests. It’s a hardcover book of more than nine-hundred pages, with a colorful photograph on the front and blurbs on the back from four people I have never heard of. There was a time when I might have read it, out of flattery and dogged commitment to consuming everything placed in front of me, like a kid cleaning his plate of vegetables, but no more. I don’t read much fiction I haven’t already read. I don’t read anything that smacks of fantasy or what one of the blurbists refers to as “Garcia Marquezian magical realism.” And I don’t read novels exceeding nine-hundred pages in length unless the author is named Tolstoy or Proust.
One of my favorite letter writers, along with Cowper, Keats and O’Connor, is William James, a man who seems to have been more alive than most of us. His prose bristles. In a letter to Mrs. Henry Whitman written on June 7, 1899, James says:
“I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, and yet rending the hardest monuments of man's pride, if you give them time. The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed.”
This seems true of organizations, crowds of any sort and most works of literature. One suspects egotism in most steroidal performances. Inevitably, quantity trumps quality. I’m not making a grand political generalization, unlike James, who goes on:
“So I am against all big organizations as such, national ones first and foremost: against all big successes and big results; and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual and immediately unsuccessful way, under-dogs always, till history comes after they are long dead, and puts them on the top.--You need take no notice of these ebullitions of spleen, which are probably quite unintelligible to any one but myself.”