Long Books? – Who can be bothered?

I’m sure there was a post in the Guardian way back about this – it might even have been by the famous author Lee Rourke; anyhow, it occurs that if you look through the books I’ve read in the last 3 years, not one of them’s longer than 500 pages – and in fact, I honestly can’t remember the last book I finished that was over 500 pages (it was probably The Lord of the Rings, though I read it as three books / or Ian Kershaw’s Hitler biography). This is going back about 7-8 years now.

It’s not necessarily for lack of trying. Last year I tried to read Daniel Deronda (got about 150/200 pages in – nothing much was happening), The Egotist (Egoist?) by Meredith (got about 50 pages in – odd style, but bored) and probably some others (Infinite Jest perhaps, though that seems a while back); and then this year there’s Alexander Theroux’s Darconville’s Cat (about 100 / 150 pages in – odd style, but bored); Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (page 200 or so – nice satire of the Brutalists, but bored); Munif’s Cities of Salt (interesting account of the influence of the West on Saudi Arabian society – about halfway through and might finish one day, but currently stuck).

Why do people write such long books, when they don’t really seem to have that much to say? – In particular, all these books seem to me just to be stretching out their subject matter interminably etc. etc. If you’re going to take up so much of your reader’s time, at least make it interesting, worthwhile. It makes me intimidated ever to pick up a long book again, now I’m quite confident I’ll never get to the end of it. – I must admit, I find non-fiction a lot easier in this regard than fiction.

Anyhow, to defeat my own argument, I should – either this month or next – finish two books over 500 pages; – on the other hand, they’re both books of short stories: – The Treasury of Yiddish Stories (just over 500 pages), and vol 3 of The Arabian Nights (about 550).


9 thoughts on “Long Books? – Who can be bothered?

  1. It took me ages to get through Mary Beard’s Pompeii, though it’s only 300 pages with loads of pictures (the print is quite small, like here). It’s not that I didn’t like the book, I quite enjoyed it while reading it, but the idea of picking it up filled me with unenthusiasm. Despite having been involved in archaeology in the distant past, the piddling pettifogging bureaucratic nature of the activity, the (frequently) pseudo-scientific methodology and the tottering pinnacles of supposition based on not much are a severe irritant.

    I did manage to get through Clockers recently (655 pages). Not bad.

  2. Agree with MM; most of the really long books I’ve read have been sub 300 pages. On Chesil Beach was much harder to finish than War and Peace, for instance. A book should be as long as it needs to be, and no shorter. I wouldn’t want to lose a single paragraph of Ulysses.

  3. A book should be as long as it needs to be

    I suppose my issue is that I often seem to have a very different idea of how long a book needs to be from the author of that book. I’ve little doubt if I picked up one of those long Tolstoy or Dostoevsky tomes, I could read it to the end. – Perhaps I can force myself, before the year’s out, to read one novel over 500 pages.

    The other thing I didn’t mention, is that I find I shy away from buying long books now in shops. Just yesterday I was pondering over a copy of Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra, but then thinking about the length of it, I thought, I’m never going to read it, and put it back.

    – Yes, archaeologist’s methods. As a classicist, I tend to regard their ideas in much the same light as astrology. The closest I ever came to archaeology was a term spent studying Roman coinage. Our coin expert used to recount how he endlessly had to explain to archaeologists that finding say a coin of Hadrian on an excavation proved nothing more than that the coin had been placed there either during the reign of Hadrian or at any given point between the reign of Hadrian and the present – and could not be used to prove anything more accurate than that.

  4. There’s no logic where books are concerned. It would be interesting to know why people continue to write long books. They don’t have the financial incentive of 19th Century serial novelists (though I have read that publishers won’t consider a book if it’s less than a certain number of pages). Years ago Ian McEwan said that his aim was to produce novels which could be read in an afternoon, or 3 – 4 hours. At the time that struck me as a sensible idea. On further thought I wouldn’t want to be deprived of a single page of War and Peace or Middlemarch. Perhaps it’s a formula which should only be applied to modern novels.

  5. “Why read books?” – I do ask myself this quite often, but I’ve never come up with any answer. It’s just something I like wasting my time doing.

    I don’t know why people write long books – it’s uneconomic. If my own novel had been 200 pages shorter, I’d have finished it 4 years ago.

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