How much can we invest in? I know pathetically little enough about financial theory to effectively abuse the metaphor. To invest is to put in work toward a future payoff. To spend, in my careless employment, is to put in work for an immediate result. I am inclined to believe that an infinite investment is the same as immediate spending: the greater payoff never comes, so all one has is the present experience.
And so I come to what may a breaking point in The Wheel of Time. I have been reading it non-stop for weeks on end, laboriously taking in every word in every spare moment. However, I start chapter 38 of book 4, and find myself reading about Egeanin, a Seanchan captain (which I had to look up). The last I recall, the Seanchan were only written about from an outside perspective, as our heroes had to combat them at the end of book two. But here, without warning, without context, I find myself dropped into a scene in which I am surveying the world from her perspective (and of course, for good measure the mysterious captain Bayle Domon just happens to be in the same room).
How much work is too much to ask of the reader? Of course, there are as many answers as there are readers willing (or not willing) to work. I can’t imagine what is was like for readers in the mid to late 80’s to keep these seemingly endless, disparate characters and plot lines in mind as Jordan released each successive volume. Even reading them end to end, as one, seamless piece, is near impossible. And yet I do not fault Jordan. If anything, I am in awe of the massiveness of his mind. But does it make for a good story? I’m not so sure.
I find myself unwilling to invest in these new characters. The work it takes to make them real feels too dear a price to pay to suspend the ones I already know and love. For every Egeanin, Uno, Aviendha, Verin and Padan Fain I find myself wishing for more about Lanfear, Lan, Nynaeve, Moiraine and Rand. Again, this is not Jordan’s fault, but mine. He is capturing the immense scope of an entire world, history and mythology. For every character he introduces he could have introduced a thousand more. But can I take them all in? No.
I remember hearing a talk in which the speaker was host to a Buddhist monk. The host had to prepare for a large party at her house, and the monk asked if he could help. Grateful, she asked if he would prepare the salad. An hour later, he was still washing the lettuce—slowly, painstakingly, leaf by leaf. Frantically, aware of how much was left to do and how little time was left, she took the lettuce from him and finished the salad. It was only later that she realized he was practicing mindfulness: he was fully focused on the task of cleaning each leaf, oblivious to the anxiety that drove her like a horse’s whip. Looking back, and sharing it with her audience, she felt a sense of shame, awe and inspiration at his mindset. It was as if, for him, to invest and to spend were one and the same.
So it is with sadness and shame that I confess setting aside the Wheel of Time. Perhaps I shall take it up again, but I feel that there are other things I have to read, other realities I have to be present to. Nevertheless, I am thankful and do not regret a single minute.