On Reading Long Books

Time was, I’d buy long books and devour them. I’d read them in the evening, often staying up late, absorbed by a work of fiction or non-fiction. I’ve always liked long books; the kind that you read for weeks at a time. I read fairly quickly – not through any form of speed reading – so back in the day when I had a one-hour commute morning and evening, having a 500-plus page book meant that I’d have enough to keep me going for a while.

I like the fact that with a long book – such as Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, arguably not one book, or James Joyce’s Ulysses, or lesser-known big tomes such as Russel Banks’ unjustly ignored Cloudsplitter (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), or Gregory David Roberts Shantaram (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), or so many others – you immerse yourself in a world that is enveloping, absorbing, that takes you on a long journey.

But in recent years, I’ve found that I don’t get along well with very long books any more. Perhaps it’s age, perhaps it’s a reduced attention span, but I don’t find it as interesting to sit down to read one of these long books. Sure, I read some – Richard Russo’s astounding Anybody’s Fool (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), a sequel to his equally wonderful Nobody’s Fool, for example – but I hesitate now when I see a large page count. I keep putting off buying Richard Powers’ latest novel The Overstory (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), even though he is one of my favorite authors, because it clocks in at more than 500 pages, and I never even started John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), his latest book.

One reason for my shunning long books has to do with the publishers. More and more, long books in print use tiny fonts. This has lead me to buy Kindle versions of more books, because publishers try to keep the page count lower to save money. But even then, I often find myself bored, or at least less interested, in longer books. Part of this could be the authors and editors; maybe that book didn’t need those extra hundred pages.

Lately, I’m more drawn to books around 200 pages long, often in a size that is similar to the standard trade paperback. I can read these books in an evening, perhaps two, and there’s no fat. Julian Barnes’ masterful The Only Story (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is one example. At 224 pages, with a comfortable font, I read it in about three or four hours, one long evening where I couldn’t go to sleep until I finished it. And I have recently ordered two other short books: Last Stories, the final collection of short stories by the inimitable William Trevor (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), and Upstate by critic James Wood (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).

I won’t shun long books forever, but sometimes it’s nicer to read something that is concise, without Rushdian digressions or Pynchonesque casts of characters. A good story, well told, doesn’t always need to be 500 pages long.

14 thoughts on “On Reading Long Books

  1. Probably good you’re not a Stephen King fan.

    (I think there’s been a rush to publish outsize books lately. I just reread the Nero Wolfe series and the Travis McGee series and the volumes all came in between 100-120 pages (Wolfe) or 150-200 pages (McGee)). 100 pages isn’t even a book anymore.

    • I am a Stephen King fan, and I skipped a lot of his latest book; it’s just not interesting.

      I love the Travis McGee books; I read them all some years ago, along with all the Robert B. Parker books, also not very long. I have a bunch of Ed McBains in Kindle format, and they are also fairly short.

      I don’t contest that there are books that need to be long, but it seems these days that there are too many books that don’t need to.

  2. When I was travelled for Bendix Field Engineering many years ago, I took “Gravity’s Rainbow” to keep me busy on flights, and in hotel rooms. A fascinating book (I interpret it as an attack on Western civilization) — but not something easily digested. Agreed — ideas are more important than length. Length is not profundity. Difficult/complex ideas can be developed across multiple works.

  3. As I am reading some books, I want them to be longer. Every sentence is a joy, and ‘tasting’ the words and phrases, the language use, is something that I want to prolong. PG Wodehouse is one such writer for me. Many of his plots are roughly the same, his message is not profound or surprising, but his descriptions and juxtapositions make reading a pleasure.

    In many long works, there is plenty of fluff, lots that is extraneous, and even if it is well written, the excess detracts from the focus and the flow of the story.

    • Yes, I know the feeling. Sometimes short books make you want more. I’ve never read Wodehouse, but I know the feeling with some other authors whose prose is so good. (Julian Barnes, or William Trevor, who I mention above, are two examples.)

  4. When you hit your 70’s, time to read, you have in abundance, but there is also the shadow thought there may not be enough time, particularly when surrounded by the mountains of books to be read.
    When perusing books and confronted by a ‘big’ book, I usually confront this dilemma.
    My personal preference is non-fiction of any length, but for the occasional change I will read a classic work I had missed. Recently I was truly ‘gobsmacked’ by Vanity Fair: how had I never known this before! It has joined my list to be savoured again, if….

  5. Because of severe head trauma from a fall that was complicated by dying again and again while in hospital, my sense of time got lost. As a result, I can read short stories but can only listen to longer works as apparently that’s a different part of the brain.

    I suspect that I migh be able to re-read the Nero Wolfe and Travis McGee books. Any suggestions to similar mysteries in that length?

    • Ed McBain and Robert B. Parker. I really like Parker; great characters, snarky hard-boiled detective (Spenser).

      • I suspect that we largely agree, but I would call Spenser a soft-boiled detective. He is a gourmet chef, and reads serious literature. He pampers his dogs. For most of the series, he has a steady girlfriend and turns down sexual invitations from others on a regular basis.

        He calls himself a “thug” from time to time, and yet is always very concerned and considerate. He puts a lot of effort into making sure he only kills bad guys. Spenser has an intriguing mix of high-brow and low-brow traits.

        There is much more violence than in Nero Wolfe, but the goal isn’t to make it gruesome or dwell on the gore. Similar to Archie in the Nero Wolfe mysteries, the main character is constantly cracking jokes.

  6. Have no fear about The Overstory! It’s a pageturner! Powers gets better with every book!
    I’m just starting After On which looks to be of a similar size. The first few pages are promising.

    • It’s interesting to hear your experience, James. I got bogged down worse than Napoleon, when I first tried to read ‘War and Peace’, and like him, I never went back. Your comment sent me to the Internet, which reports that in Russian, ‘War and Peace’ has 460,000 words, but in English, it’s 560,000. Let’s compare that to a more recent novel on the same theme of world domination, ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’, with 76,944 words. If I’m using my calculator correctly, Harry Potter has 13% of the words in ‘War and Peace’. [By the way, I got bogged down in Harry Potter, too.]

  7. Overstory should be perfect for you. It is essentially a large set of short stories…perfect for our short attention span world.

    • Thanks. I’m currently re-reading The Portrait of a Lady, but I think I’ll get to The Overstory next.

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