A Short Take on Long Books: Ben Talks William T. Vollmann

William T. Vollmann called me on the phone the other day. Before you think I’m self-aggrandizing—look at the important writers who call me!—know the following two things: a) he was calling to check the details of our event with him on 4/14, and b) almost no authors do that—and certainly not authors of his stature. I also confess, I was absolutely terrified to hear his voice—not because he wasn’t totally pleasant (he was) but because, more than nearly any other living writer, he seems almost supernatural to me.

The first thing you notice about Vollmann’s books, seeing them all together, is that they are very long. I mean, seriously long. I knew his name for years but first read him when my roommate in graduate school tracked down a copy of Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down—not the abridged version (which still runs 600 or so pages) but the original version, published in a limited print run, that spans 3000 pages. To call it a great work is an understatement: the culmination of 20 years of Vollmann’s research, it’s staggering in its conception—to create a moral calculus for the causes of violence—a fact that’s clear even if you never read a word.

The funny thing about Vollmann though: he’s probably the least difficult of “difficult” writers. Yes, the size of the books is daunting. And though loosely connected with the postmodern generation that included David Foster Wallace (a genuinely far more difficult writer), Vollmann rarely engages in literary pyrotechnics on a sentence level: his gaze is clear, his prose precise and inviting. He’s also very funny and humane, which does wonders for his nonfiction, which often takes on big subjects: violence (as mentioned previously), but also poverty and nuclear energy (as in his new book, No Immediate Danger). For one book, he joined the mujahideen. For other work, he traveled the most polluted river in the world. For No Immediate Danger (out next Tuesday), he traveled to the site of the Fukushima meltdown when it was still extremely dangerous. He wanted to do his own tests on radiation levels; he didn’t trust the other reportage.

He’s a brilliant madman, writing the kind of nonfiction I wish everyone would write (I’ve barely even touched on his fiction, which is plentiful and National Book Award-winning). It’s one of the great honors of my career in bookselling that he’s coming to Houston April 14 for an event at the United Way, co-sponsored by the World Affairs Council. I am, of course, terrified to meet him in person!

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