Steve Chapman
I recently started Victor Hugo's novel "Les Miserables," which most people seem to prefer in movie or musical theater form if only because those take less time. You can get the story in under three hours instead of taking who knows how long to plow through the 1,232-page Penguin edition.

No, I'm not fishing for sympathy. Having this mountain of pages to climb gives me great peace of mind. I like starting books, and I like reading books. What I don't like is finishing books, and with "Les Miserables," that won't be a problem for a while.

Finishing a book means the end of something pleasurable -- otherwise I would have tossed it aside long before. It also fills me with dread and terror, because it means I have to decide what to read next.

For years I avoided "Les Miserables," partly because it seemed like the reading equivalent of Jean Valjean's 19 years as a galley slave. But then my daughter gave it to me for Christmas, and I have a firm policy of reading any book my kids give me.

Besides, what's so great about skinny books? As a friend of mine says when people ask him why he reads mammoth volumes, "If you really like a book, why would you want it to be shorter?"

No one, after all, seeks out ski mountains because they have short runs. No one wishes Beethoven had done three-minute symphonies. No one exercises in hopes of achieving an abbreviated lifespan.

One- or two-pound books spare me, for a while, the most painful part of my reading regimen: indecision. When I reach the end, I'm tormented by all the options before me: Fiction or history? Biography or memoir? Contemporary or 19th-century? American or British? I can't sleep soundly till I decide how to spend the coming weeks or months.

Yes, months, because after a youth spent gobbling down books like a starving goat, I have come to understand the wisdom of taking ... them ... slowly. It's not much of an accomplishment to have read every important author if most of what they wrote escapes you afterward.

So I try to pay attention to every word and sentence, underlining the ones that grab me. And I don't read books once. I read them twice: stopping every 50 or 100 pages to go back and read them again.

Given my inadequate capacity for retention, it's the only way I can remember what I've read for more than 72 hours. And if I really want to remember it -- well, there's no law against reading the same volume three times.

The first time through, I'm reading the book. The second time, I'm living in it. The third time, it's taking up permanent residence in me.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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