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In his introduction to Thomas Mann’s epic ‘Joseph and his Brothers‘, translator John E. Woods gives this suggestion on how to read the book.

“And yet the question remains how best should a reader approach a work so monumental and complex – plunge in at page 1 and devil take the hindmost? That is, after all, the way Mann wrote it to be read. With considerable trepidation, I would like to suggest a different strategy for first-time readers of this great novel. I propose you start with “The Story of Dinah,” part 3 of The Stories of Jacob. Based on a Bible story (Genesis 33:17-35:5) never taught in the Sunday schools of my youth, this tale of passion and revenge becomes, in Mann’s hand, a marvelous epitome of the virtues of the novel as a whole. My hope, and my guess, is that you will be irrevocably caught up in this great literary adventure and eager to climb the “pyramid.” But beware : don’t begin at the beginning even yet. For those just getting their climbing legs in shape, “Prelude: Descent into Hell” may well turn out to be literally that. This opening chapter’s larger historical and theological perspectives introduce many of the themes that Mann will weave into his four novels, but without a story to hang them on, you may well feel he has pushed you over the edge and down a well that is indeed bottomless. So, “Dinah” first, then back to part 1, “At the Well” and at some point, halfway up volume 1 or so, you will want to look back, and give the Prelude its due, for it has monumental rewards.”

Being an old-fashioned reader, I didn’t follow his advice. I refused to take the easy way out. I did what Woods has described at the beginning – “plunge in at page 1 and devil take the hindmost” 😆 I started with ‘Prelude : Descent into Hell’. It wasn’t the hell that Woods had said it might be. It wasn’t that bad. It was actually amazing. It was vintage Mann though – complex and challenging prose, long sentences, but if you don’t get intimidated and you persist, you’ll be amply rewarded. Mann doesn’t court you with his first sentence and paragraph, he challenges you, he demands your attention, he makes you put in the hard work and the intellectual effort. It is worth it.

Yesterday, I finished the prelude (yes, the descent into hell as Mann describes it – I’m back now to tell the tale 😆), part 1 and part 2, and I am knocking at the doors of part 3. I can’t wait to get started on ‘The Story of Dinah‘.

After quite a while, I’ve managed to finish 100 straight pages from a book. I think I can say now that my reading slump is officially over 😊 Yay!

Do you follow a specific reading plan while tackling a big book?

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