What We’re Reading: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Unlike some of my illustrious colleagues, I’m not a super-fast reading machine. I tend to move between reading poetry, novels, nonfiction, and spiritual writings, and I take my reading choices very seriously in part because I like to spend more time with each book (what I lack in quantity I try to make up for in quality). I also like books that require more from me as a reader – I get pleasure from having to work a little, or more than a little in some cases, for the treasure.

Friends had been recommending David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas to me for two years before I finally picked it up this month. I wasn’t in a rush to read it because I’ve had lots of other good books in the mix and because I was pretty sure I would love it and was happy to delay the enjoyment for awhile. Indeed, Mitchell’s book did not disappoint.

Cloud Atlas’ success hinges on its unique structure – a sort of Matryoshka doll of time and space where the innermost doll is the furthest in the future. Mitchell is able to move between periods of history, characters, voices, cultural contexts, and even types of humor with incredible ease, and the novel’s structure serves as perfect scaffolding to hold its six different worlds together.

For the first half of the book, I was compelled forward through the narrative by my admiration for Mitchell’s writing, as well as pure curiosity about where he would take me next. During the latter half, when the dolls are gradually nested back inside their larger sisters, I was most engaged by the subtle, fluid connections between the disparate sections that began to emerge more strongly and build into one story. The book’s theme is nothing less than humankind’s ambition and creative capacity, which lead to works of incredible beauty along with hubris, violence, and destruction. Because of this, the novel contains equal parts art and politics, nature and technology, past and future, all the while purposefully subverting the reader’s natural inclination to distinguish between reality and fiction.

I highly recommend this book. And if you enjoy or want to try books that play with structure, two of my other favorites are Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar and See Under: Love by David Grossman.

Happy reading!

— Sarah Rose Nordgren, Publicity Assistant

3 Comments On This Post:

September 19, 2011
8:12 am
Erin says...

I just read Cloud Atlas over the summer and was blown away. It was my first experience with Mitchell’s writing, and I know I’ll read more! I was absolutely enchanted by the structure and the way the stories interconnected, but perhaps my favorite part was how seamlessly and effortlessly Mitchell seemed to move from one character or section’s voice to another. It was like six different authors had written the book! Anyway, I’m happy you enjoyed this one. I’m interested to find out more about Hopscotch and See Under: Love!

September 19, 2011
11:01 am
Melinda says...

Cloud Atlas was one of my summer reads as well, and I loved it! It was one of those books that I found myself gushing about to anyone who would listen. Erin, if you’re looking for another good David Mitchell book, try Ghostwritten – it has a similar structure and was the book that turned me into a fan of his writing.

September 21, 2011
10:14 am
Judith says...

I AM a super-fast reading machine, but with Cloud Atlas I had to slow down. It was not possible to speed through the book as I’m used to. So it took me much, much longer than other books that size. But it was so worth it! It’s very very interesting.

I haven’t heard of the books you mentioned but I will check them out for sure!

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