What’s wrong with long books?

by on May 1, 2007 at 10:10 am in Books | Permalink

“I am guilty of never having read Anna Karenina, because it’s just so long.  I’d much rather read two 300-page books than one 600-page book.”

Here is the link, which details the recent publishing attempt to mutilate Moby Dick and other classics.  Of course I’ve yet to read Terra Nostra (785 big pp.) by Carlos Fuentes.  Why not?  No one is doubting that many long books are good books.  Doesn’t the Modigliani-Miller theorem teach us that nominal variables are irrelevant?  Can’t you, on your own, turn Anna Karenina into a larger number of shorter books?  Just a few months ago I bought a collection of five Eric Ambler novels, in one volume, and ripped it into five separate, easy to transport pieces. 

As usual, I can think of a few hypotheses:

1. The detachable book is in fact the wave of the future, we just haven’t seen it yet.

2. The blog post is the detachable book.

3. What people enjoy is finishing books, and the resulting feeling of satisfaction, not reading them.

4. What people enjoy is starting books, not reading them.  Starting books is a bit like going shopping, but after the actual reading starts ennui soon sets in.  The books of the future (present?) will allow readers to feel they are starting a new product every chapter.  (Is the real secret of blogs simply that readers always enjoy the promise of starting something new?  How many of you spend hours with the MR archives, still highly relevant and of course always stellar in quality?)

Here is a meditation on reading Pynchon, commentary here.  I’m now pawing through Against the Day — slowly — and so far enjoying it.

Here is my earlier post on this topic, I believe that today I am contradicting my earlier self.  Of course that is obvious to anyone who has read through the archives.

1 Press May 1, 2007 at 10:21 am

Sorry to take a left turn on the topic but how did you like the Eric Ambler books?. Have you tried Allan Furst?

2 Christopher Prottas May 1, 2007 at 10:50 am

I read books for the resolution. Often I find myself reading introductions and conclusions first, and if I have time reading other parts. (non-fiction that is)

3 Mike May 1, 2007 at 11:03 am

That’s why Dickens is great: if you read four chapters a month over the course of two years, you’re not slow or lazy — you’re reading it as the author intended!

4 Alan Little May 1, 2007 at 11:21 am

I found the 900-odd pages of Sacred Games fascinating from beginning to end, and am profoundly grateful to you, Tyler, for having drawn my attention to it.

5 Anderson May 1, 2007 at 11:34 am

Er, no, I think novels generally try to be more immodular (all pieces fit together for a very specific reason) and self-contained (no need to assume the reader is already a fan of your work) than that.

Pooh. Many of those long novels were originally published in multiple volumes; they are singles today because it costs less.

6 LP May 1, 2007 at 11:38 am

Mike has a point — lots and lots of seemingly endless novels were written in serial format, to be published and read chapter by chapter with time in between. These are exactly the right books to keep in your subway-reading bag, because you can read them in 20 minute chunks without losing narrative flow. I use Thomas Hardy novels for this purpose.

Similarly, many very long books were written by authors being paid by the word. This means that when Victor Hugo suddenly goes into a 200-year history of a certain street in Paris, it’s perfectly safe to skip over this, and probably wouldn’t offend the author one bit. Use of this technique probably takes about 100 pages off the total length of Les Miserable, for example.

7 Person May 1, 2007 at 11:52 am

Anderson:

Pooh. Many of those long novels were originally published in multiple volumes; they are singles today because it costs less.

That they were originally published in novels doesn’t contradict their attempt at *artistic* immodularity;
just the opposite: they want you to want to know how the pieces relate and so buy them all. (Perhaps that
detracts from my point about trying to make the work self-contained?) And the fact that they cost less as
one volume does not suffice as a reason for doing it; you have to account for what they can than charge. If
they could milk more of customers by charging them again and again to get the full story, we’d see that.

LP:

Similarly, many very long books were written by authors being paid by the word. This means that when Victor Hugo suddenly goes into a 200-year history of a certain street in Paris, it’s perfectly safe to skip over this, and probably wouldn’t offend the author one bit.

Heh, good point. I guess I meant that an author only maximizing the quality of work, would tend toward
maximal immodularity.

8 BD May 1, 2007 at 11:58 am

I find this to be an odd dilemma in my own book-reading experience. I love long books… for example, I’m currently reading “Truman” by David McCullough. It’s a massive tome. I read it voraciously because, first, I find it to be fascinating, and secondly, I want to finish it. The only problem is that the satisfaction of finishing it is combined with the disappointment that I’ve no more of the book to read.

Living in NYC, I find that smaller books are definitely more convenient, especially when reading while traveling on mass transportation.

9 Seamus McCauley May 1, 2007 at 12:12 pm

Is it remotely true that long books are in some way unpopular? It’s notoriously difficult to get a reliable list of the best-selling books ever, but Wikipedia steers us to this one – http://qurl.com/2cvqt. The Bible, the Koran, the Book of Common Prayer are all conspicuously long books, and even if you screen the list for just novels the Lord of the Rings trilogy is more than 1000 pages and the longest of the Harry Potters comes in at 768 pages.

Of course, one might point out that a lot of copies of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book (at number two) were somewhat forced purchases, and the activities of the Gideon organisation perhaps mask the true consumer demand for the Bible (at number one). So we turn instead to a recent poll of respondent’s favourite books (http://qurl.com/lvd7w) and see Pride and Prejudice or To Kill a Mockingbird at the magic 300 pages each…sitting alongside Lord of the Rings and the Bible again, and The Da Vinci Code, the runaway fictional success of the last few years, sitting at number nine with 560 pages with Catch-22 at 576. Perhaps most tellingly he longest Harry Potter is the only one of that best-selling series to make it into the top ten, beating far shorter instalments of what is fundamentally the same tale.

There’s nothing wrong with long books. They make up a good proportion of the most popular books in recent years as well as ever sold. It’s just that a lot of alleged classics that happen to be long are also very, very boring, and while people somehow feel they “should” read them they just can’t bring themselves to wade through the turgid prose.

10 Bob Montgomery May 1, 2007 at 12:25 pm

I don’t think length, by itself at least, is really a factor.

The Harry Potter series clocks in at 309, 352, 448, 734, 870 (!), and 652 pages.
Many other popular books are very long. Check out Stephen King’s novels: The Stand – 1200 pages. It – 1138 pages. The Shining – 528 pages.
Or Robert Jordan’s popular fantasy series. The now-eleven book series has a hefty 7860 pages: 680, 600, 624, 704, 704, 720, 720, 604, 800, 704, 1000.

Plenty of people read long books. The real factor here is that reading “classics” is a lot more work than reading Harry Potter or Stephen King. And 600 pages of work is a lot more daunting than 300 pages of work.

11 kharris May 1, 2007 at 12:49 pm

Bob M is on the right path, I think. There may, however, be a more fundamental analytic error at work. Who says our host’s preferences are universal?

There is evidence imbedded in the various comments here. Harry Potter novels are long, and widely read. King is long, and widely read. Some people like a long read. Some don’t. Those musty old classics still sell at B&N, so it isn’t just being assigned that gets them read. The premise of this post may simply be in error. There may not be anything wrong with long books, if you happen to like long books.

12 michael vassar May 1, 2007 at 12:58 pm

My rule is generally not to read books of average length. Shorter books are saying all the author wanted to say, longer books couldn’t be compressed losslessly to the most popular length, but average length books are probably short books plus filler to get up to the sales maximizing size.

13 jadagul May 1, 2007 at 2:26 pm

Michael, I find that fascinating because it’s so totally the opposite of the way I look at book length.

Part of it is that I read fast. I don’t think Atlas Shrugged took more than twelve hours or so the first time I read it; I can’t remember the last time I read a novel that took ten hours of concentrated reading (though I’m starting in on Infinite Jest, so that wil probably do it). The reason I don’t start books as often as I’d like is that I know that once I start, I’m going to get literally nothing done until I finish—I’ll be planted on that bed until the book’s over. I don’t understand people who can read a fiction book over the course of a couple weeks. It’d drive me nuts.

TV, on the other hand, really annoys me because (for the most part) so little happens and it moves so slow. The spoken word can’t transmit information at anywhere near the pace that text can; I can’t do audiobooks because most readers read them so slowly that I lose track of what’s going on. I also hate the rise of podcasting for this reason; I love reading what people have to say, but can’t believe they actually expect me to sit still and listen to them read it about a quarter of the speed.

Finally, I find the repeated example of the Harry Potter books amusing; I love them, but one of their great virtues is that they’re so short. Sure, the page count is high, but they have gigantic font and huge spacing between lines. If you printed them in the same font that most of my other novels are printed, I doubt any of them would break 350.

14 blink May 1, 2007 at 2:54 pm

I think there is a strong psychic cost of abandonment, analogous to a psychic reward for finishing. With a short book, one can avoid the abandonment cost by reading a few insipid pages. Not so with a tome. Additionally, because reading a long book requires a substantial time investment, there is a greater probability of abandoning even a good book. Of course, Tyler has overcome this effect. Perhaps his example should motivate us morals to practice “abandoning† books in order to extinguish “abandonment guilt.† We have the enjoyment of several long books to gain.

15 Ray G May 1, 2007 at 7:25 pm

I agree that it is a simple case of short attention spans that keep people from reading books all the way through. This would seem to help magazine sales I would think.

And it is true that most books could be written much shorter than they are. Particularly non-fiction books. It seems they have an idea that “needs” to be made into a book, but the idea and philosophy or methodology behind can be explained in about 100 pages. Then they tack on 200 pages of filler, background, meandering, etc.

One that always springs to mind is the “Dogs of the Dow” investing strategy. Probably comes to memory so easy because it was the first time it occured to me that people do that with books. The whole investment strategy could be explained in an average sized pamphlet, but pamphlets don’t sell. So they had to “grow” it into a book.

Thus a lot of books turn into reference material, never being read cover to cover, but still being picked up a lot.

16 jcm May 1, 2007 at 10:00 pm

Nothing.

Don Quixote
War and peace.
Life and Fate
Les Miserables.
La Morte dArthur
Wealth of Nations
Ulyses.
History /Herodotus
Crime and Punishment
The Great Terror
Bleak House
Origin of Species
Descent of man
II world war (the abridged edition, of course)
The History of the Peloponnesian War. ( commented here)
Gengi Mogatari
Long and readable books.

17 Gov98 May 1, 2007 at 11:24 pm

Interestingly enough, according to my copy of Anna Karenina, it was originally released serially in a magazine.

As to the reading of long novels, one MAJOR problem of today’s schools is they push absolutely terrible “literature” on students because they need to fill a “not a dead white guy” quota. And absolutely amazing literature by “dead white guys” gets overlooked. As a result, many students come away from English classes thinking that reading is lame and a total waste, because for many books getting past 50 pages is difficult even if the book is only 150 pages.

With classic literature I find my experiences have been much different. Don Quixote was 800 pages, but was easy to read and enjoyable. War and Peace was easily read and enjoyed despite being 1200+ pages, the same was true of The Brothers Karamazov. Such excellent literature could be read quickly because it was wonderful. Anna Karenina most amply demonstrates this. In all of literature I have not come across a better novel than Anna Karenina, it is quite simply in my opinion the best novel ever written, and I read 850 pages quicker then I ever would have imagined myself doing in High School.

Thinking that getting 400 pages is a risk, is easily overcome with great literature 50 pages into Anna, and I knew it was amazing.

18 Surabaya Johnny May 2, 2007 at 3:59 am

I’ve been rereading and listening (librisvox.org) to a free recording of Moby Dick while following a lectured podcast on gods from The Odyssey to Moby Dick by UC Berkeley’s own Hubert Dreyfus. These tendentious linked morons think it is just some fish story which can be presented in a few sentences. I might agree if they were goring someone else’s whale.

19 amba (Annie Gottlieb) May 2, 2007 at 9:16 am

It only struck me as an afterthought what an appropriate comment that is to post on . . . Marginal Revolution.

20 Tonstant Weader May 4, 2007 at 3:08 pm

I like many long books and loved them. War and Peace is a personal favorite (I think of it as Gone with the Wind in Russia) and I reread Black Lamb and Grey Falcon every few years. Still, I do hesitate when starting a new long book for several reasons. Convenience matters. Small books fit in my purse. When I read a long book, I have to drag along a tote bag for the book to read it on the bus or have two books on tap, one for the bus and one for at home. I prefer to read one book at a time. The time it will take matters. I could read three smaller books or one larger one — then it better be good. Then my experience as a read comes into play — some writers write long books because they can’t edit themselves and the books are long because the prose is undisciplined. And lastly, and i swear this is true. I once dislocated my finger from the weight of a book. The book was great, but it wasn’t worth that much pain.

21 april May 7, 2007 at 9:30 pm

At the risk of oversimplifying…my rule is:
if a book is very good, then the longer the better (more is better of something good, right?). If it is not good, then length is irrelevant.

MM: Pls check to see if the Anna Karenina you ordered is the translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky. It is fantastic – and beyond comparisons with earlier translations.

22 J. Smith February 4, 2008 at 9:51 pm

The blogs posted above show that there is a wide range of consumer preference vis-à-vis the page length of books. Why? Some folk enjoy the ends rather than the means to the end, i.e., finishing a good book rather than reading the book itself. Others believe the means is critically important to the overall understanding of the author’s original intent. As mentioned above, many of the greatest books ever read (again, preference) are longer in sum than 1,000 pages. Children (young and old) who are desirous of the latest Rowling installment in the Harry Potter series will not complain about the overall length of the tome, nor will they complain about the price of the book. Rowling’s books have been inelastic—if the price increases by 10%, the demand for Mr. Potter’s magic does not decrease. Why? Harry Potter was an instant classic, similar to the works of Tolkien, Lewis, etc. People are less concerned with page numbers when the story being told or idea expressed is captivating.

Let’s take another issue concerning books-in-general—hardbound v. softbound. If you stroll into your nearest mega-bookstore, you will find that the vast majority of books sold are softbound rather than hardbound. If you find a hardbound book it will likely be a first edition. Why do people generally prefer softbound books? There are several reasons: 1) Softbound is less expensive than hardbound (by about half the price); 2) Income constraints dictate the purchase of the less expensive alternative; and, 3) softbound books are more disposable and less enduring—“if I don’t like the book, I have not invested very much.† Therefore, books-in-general, are elastic. Conversely, and by way of exception, if a person’s income rises and he/she finds a leather bound edition of Harry Potter more appealing, then the good ol’ softbound edition becomes an inferior good. Tired of the spine breaking and the pages falling out due to an absence of a sewn binding, the quality of a leather bound book becomes more obvious. Perhaps at this point, “signaling†—higher price = equals higher quality—becomes more of a reality. Perhaps the person’s recent increase in income and consequently their new social network will affect the person’s preference of a beautiful leather bound Potter rather than run-of-the-mill softbound edition. At this point the price elasticity of demand would be inelastic, given that the person could afford a higher priced option, being convinced of the quality and longevity of a leather bound edition, and is willing to pay the additional cost required to impress those newly found bibliophile friends.

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