People started telling me to read David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas three years ago and I told them I would, as I do when someone grabs my sleeve and says, "This book is really good." But I don't always believe them, and I don't always read it.
The writer Anthony Doerr laid out the math for me: If you read about a book a week, and you're lucky enough to have 50 good adult years of reading time, you'll read 2,500 books in your life. That's shockingly few. And there are so many books I know I want to read and only a few people I know I can trust. I don't have time to find out if the stranger at a party who's going on about some novel is wrong.
But Cloud Atlas kept coming up, so I started it. It begins with the 19th-century diary of an American notary in the Pacific, which I found hard to follow. A friend said, "That book seemed a little too brilliant for me." It seemed only baffling to me, and not what I expected. And I moved on to something that seemed more pressing.
After I put it aside, my boyfriend picked up Cloud Atlas. He loved it, but he said, "I don't know if it's your kind of novel," which I took as a direct challenge. Then a friend of his cornered me for a long, raving monologue. He was in the middle of the second installment of "Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery," which wasn't his favorite section — his favorite section was the futuristic "An Orison of Sonmi~451" — but it didn't matter, he said, because it was all so good. What he was describing didn't sound like the book I had started and I decided just to get it over with.
It turned out that everyone was right, including my friend who suspected it was too brilliant. So brilliant. I didn't write for months after reading it. I was working on a novel and I just stopped. Why bother, because Mitchell's book seemed like everything I couldn't do. It's a nested box of stories, each one a virtuosic performance in an entirely different style from the last. The Pacific diaries end mid-sentence, and the book shifts to the letters of a dissipated, scheming young composer in 1931. In the course of his exploits, he finds the Pacific diary we've read and searches for the rest of it. "A half-read book," he says, "is a half-finished love affair."
But his letters are interrupted, too, and so is the '70s environmental mystery that follows. Civilization as we know it ends, in the novel, and the center section is a post-apocalyptic folktale in which only fragments of language and culture remain. Then Mitchell picks up his abandoned stories, one by one, and tells what happened.
I should say, too, that the book isn't a cold display of cleverness: It has a heart, and a fierce intelligence and a single, recurring soul.
It's been more than a year since I read the novel and I've gone back to the things I can write. And I can safely say that if Cloud Atlas isn't one of your 2,500, you're missing out.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.