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the M Train



I recently read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a great mass of a book, entirely on the subway, in rides of 23 to 45 minutes. Turns out, it’s a great book for this type of reading. Turns out, it’s not a great book.

For the first 400 pages (which you might consider a lot, if you weren’t reading this peculiar opus) it’s not even a good book. After that, things get more Mannian. I want to say here: I love Thomas Mann’s short stories/novellas. They are incredible feats of thick aesthetics and driving prose. Until page 440 or so, The Magic Mountain has none of this. In roughly 100-page installments, this is first shocking, then unnerving, then disillusioning, then despairing. Finally, redemptive.

It’s interesting that this translation, by John E Woods, is an updated version of the old Lowe-Porter translation, and cuts some two hundred pages in total. Those 200 extra probably would have thrown me off the chase. I am duly grateful.

Though I cannot recommend this particular literary experience, I have come around in recent years to hailing the NYC subway as a great venue for reading the laborious classics: War and PeaceTom Jones, pretty much anything by Balzac or Dickens (definitely do not read the engaging classics this way: UlyssesAbsalom AbsalomThe Golden Bowl, et al). These big, wordy, messy books are loosely fashioned, tailor-made for the desultory read. They are still engaging, certainly, but they engage via mass advances and retreats, old-school open-field warfare, so that your mind can wander up the legs of that lady standing next to you, or fortify itself against the obnoxious music of a group of young acrobats, without losing the thread, or fully departing from the world of the book.

So open those tomes New Yorkers!

If I see another 35+ playing a thumbs-only video game on his phone, I’m going to barf. Which might then at least provide a creamy aegis for my quiet reading.

Thomas the Mann


From → Readings

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