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Little, Big

Only in the most unusual cases is it useful to determine whether a book is good or bad. It is usually both.

Robert Musil

I certainly wouldn’t consider Little, Big by John Crowley one of the best novels I’ve ever read, or would I? It’s certainly one of the most interestingly strange and effecting fiction books I’ve read. I definitely remember many moments after reading where it stuck with me over the course of a morning or evening in a way not many books have ever done. Similar to what Tim Ferriss describes in a glowing review from one of his 5 Bullet Friday’s:

Little, Big is simply one of the best novels I’ve ever read, and even that doesn’t do it justice. It is, as one reviewer put it, “mysteriously affecting.”…On top of that, I feel like it put me in an altered state of consciousness that often lasted for 6–12 hours, best described as a deep feeling of serenity.

It’s a fantasy book. There are fairies and elves and magic. It’s a book about families and relationships, being a child and growing up, love and heartbreak. It seems like it’s set in modern times but it’s also unclear exactly if it is or where or when if so. All of these things swirl around and are true about the book but to describe it like that still doesn’t really feel right.

It’s a massive book and I didn’t highlight a ton from it, and a lot of the passages would make little sense without context, but here is one example of many of the passages that cracked me wide open:

“Do you believe in fairies?” Auberon asked. Smoky looked up at his tall son. Through the whole of their lives together, it had been as though he and Auberon had been back to back, fixed that way and unable to turn. They had had to communicate by indirection, through others, or by craning their necks and talking out the sides of their mouths; they had had to guess at each other’s faces and actions. Now and then one or the other would try a quick spin around to catch the other unawares, but it never worked, quite, the other was still behind and facing away, as in the old vaudeville act. And the effort of communication in that posture, the effort of making oneself clear, had often grown too much for them, and they’d given it up, mostly.” (John Crowley, Little, Big)

Speaking of putting you in a dream state, here is another:

“While the moon smoothly shifted the shadows from one side of Edgewood to the other, Daily Alice dreamed that she stood in a flower-starred field where on a hill there grew an oak tree and a thorn in deep embrace, their branches intertwined like fingers. Far down the hall, Sophie dreamed that there was a tiny door in her elbow, open a crack, through which the wind blew, blowing on her heart. Doctor Drinkwater dreamed he sat before his typewriter and wrote this: “There is an aged, aged insect who lives in a hole in the ground. One June he puts on his summer straw, and takes his pipe and his staff and his lamp in half his hands, and follows the worm and the root to the stair that leads up to the door into blue summer.” This seemed immensely significant to him, but when he awoke he wouldn’t be able to remember a word of it, try as he might. Mother beside him dreamed her husband wasn’t in his study at all, but with her in the kitchen, where she drew tin cookie-sheets endlessly out of the oven; the baked things on them were brown and round, and when he asked her what they were, she said “Years.”” (John Crowley, Little, Big)

It took me a long time to get through this book, but (along with a steady diet of non-fiction that has been persisting), I was always looking forward it as an escape. It was hard to follow, confusing, but despite it all a lot of fun to read. Tim said it best I think in the last part of his summary:

It all sounds like a lot of work, and—guess what?—it is a lot of work. But hot damn, the payoff is just so, so delicious that it’s hard to describe. If you try it, don’t say I didn’t warn you. 8 out of 10 of you will think I’ve lost my mind. But 2 out of 10 will find this tale of hyperreality, unreality, concrete jungles, fairy tales, and dreams to be nearly magical in its effects. This book is special.

Recommended reading for those willing.

Comments welcome!