Just the other day, I was complaining to a friend about how so many works of nonfiction are obese, topping the 500-page mark, when they would be so much more appealing at, say, 250 to 300 pages. Yet for the last couple weeks I have been happily ensconced in just such a work — Robert K. Massie’s new biography of Catherine the Great, which weighs in at 579 pages before the bibliography and end notes.
I used to read these kinds of tomes all the time. This was a time when I lived in a city far from where I’d grown up where I had no friends outside of the workplace — and I lived two blocks from an excellent independent bookstore and about five blocks from the library. I had a studio apartment that didn’t require much upkeep. There was no Internet. So basically I’d do nothing all weekend but read. I’ll even admit that this studio apartment and all this free time happened to be on South Beach circa 1989-1991 — but hey, I’m a dork. I read lots and lots, current fiction and classics, and lots of giant biographical tomes like Carlos Baker on Hemingway and William Manchester on Churchill and whoever was writing about Virginia Woolf or Elizabeth I. I loved diving into a big nonfiction tome. This might be the fault of David Halberstam, whose doorstop about journalism dynasties, The Powers That Be, was one of my favorite books when I was a young and impressionable college journalist.
But in recent years, not so much. Over my journalism career, my nonfiction reading turned more toward works of current narrative nonfiction — the New Yorker School, I guess you’d call it (Trillin, Frazier, Horwitz, Orlean). And in most recent years, I’ve been on a sustained run of fiction, mainly genre fiction — historical for the most part, especially historical mysteries. I can only blame the Key West Literary Seminar’s session on historical fiction for jumpstarting that.
But I was surprised and delighted when I saw that Massie, who is in his 80s, has produced another giant tome on a Russian monarch. A little guilty, too — like almost everyone I know, I had a copy of his Peter the Great on my shelf for years; finally gave in and donated it to the library for the book sale. But I have read him and liked him a lot — I first read his book The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, which used DNA findings and the post-Soviet Russian thaw to tell the story about what really happened to the royal family (hint: Anastasia did not make it out). From there, I read his Nicholas and Alexandra and found it to be well-written absorbing history, perfect for the lay reader who doesn’t know much about the subjects, the place or the time. And the same, I’m happy to say, goes for Catherine. I’ve long had a thing for Elizabeth I and Catherine is a similar figure in being a woman ruling in her own right, despite all kinds of odds against her ever reaching, or keeping the throne.
The only problem with inhabiting these giant tomes is that post-book letdown is all the more severe for having lived with the characters for weeks. My mom, after finishing Bob Richardson’s biography of William James, said she felt sad and that she’d miss James — I knew just what she meant.
These are some titles of giant nonfiction tomes I highly recommend if you’re looking to dive into the deep end:
Catherine The Great by Peter Massie — For all the reasons described above. And no, there’s nothing about horses at least not of an intimate nature. Turns out the Potemkin Village thing isn’t true, either.
The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen — You may think island biogeography would be a boring subject. In Quammen’s hands, you would be very very wrong
One Art by Elizabeth Bishop — Her letters, edited by her longtime publisher Robert Giroux. The closest thing we’ll ever get to a memoir; they are heartbreaking in many ways but an amazing insight into the mind of a great poet
Up In the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell — Early New Yorker writing at its finest. Yeah, I know, we can argue about the “nonfiction” qualifications of this one.
Annals of the Former World by John McPhee — A compendium of the modern New Yorker master’s books about geology. You know who was surprised to find herself reading 657 pages about geology … and enjoying it? Me!
Titan by Ron Chernow — Biography of John D. Rockefeller — Great book on the influential mogul behind Standard Oil.
Other Powers by Barbara Goldsmith — Biography of Victoria Woodhull, who was a medium, a suffragette, a financial adviser and all around force of nature — fascinating look at the nation in the late 19th century, through the lens of a mostly forgotten figure