Recently, I read 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, a book that has been acclaimed as the greatest novel of the decade so far. I say "recently": actually it took me most of my life to date. The book is about as big as a medium-sized kitchen table and requires eight adults to carry it. And that's just the paperback version. I lugged the hardback around the country for months. When taxi drivers and concerned friends, eyeing my stooping gait, asked: "What have you got in there? A safe?", I would have to admit: "No, it's just a highly regarded Spanish novel."
But what a novel! Over the several hundred million words, Bolaño - who died rather young, in the manner of a true literary great - tells the story of . . . Er, well, that's the problem. The book is actually an assembly of five books, pretty much unconnected to each other. One does little more than detail a series of murders of women taking place in a Mexican border town. One is about a depressed professor. Eventually, connections emerge, but not very strong ones. By the end, we have met hundreds of characters, only for them to drift out of the story again, and - dare I say it - haven't formed any emotional connection with any of it.
It sounds as if I didn't enjoy it, but that's not really the case. The overall experience is certainly memorable, if only because you can hardly fail to form a relationship with a book that you've spent more of 2009 with than any of your loved ones. (In fact, I've added it to my Facebook friends and we're going off to the Lake District for some quality time this weekend.) It's just a rather lonely feeling to be told, repeatedly, that a book - or an album or area of natural beauty or anything, really - will "change your life", or "astound" you, and emerge without noticeably having had those experiences. Sitting dry-eyed in a cinema, surrounded by people weeping their hearts out, or being the only one not bellowing along to the "na, na, na, NA-NA-NA-NA" coda of "Hey Jude", it is hard not to conclude that you must be at best some sort of philistine, at worst dangerously spiritually impoverished, only a degree or two better than the sort of person who only listens to music on mobile phones.
But the fault is probably with the hype, and me for believing it. The truly memorable, transforming experiences of life aren't trailed by exciting little soundbites. You don't start chatting to your future wife because her jumper says "IF YOU ONLY MEET ONE GIRL THIS DECADE, MAKE IT THIS ONE - FIVE STARS". It's the unexpectedness that makes a favourite piece of art what it is. Or maybe I should just read something a bit lighter next time. Now, where did I put that book of the best-ever texts? I hear it's "by turns heartbreaking and hilarious".