I used to love long books. I liked getting sucked into a fictional world and really getting to know a large cast of characters. The absorbing sweep and breadth of an epic is hard to beat. Some of my favorite long books include: East of Eden by John Steinbeck; The Stand by Stephen King; Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry; Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh; American Gods by Neil Gaiman; Anathem by Neal Stephenson; The Passage by Justin Cronin; NOS4A2 by Joe Hill; and A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin (although the sequels do grow to ridiculous proportions). All are guaranteed to take you far, far away from ordinary life for a good long while.
However, I have noticed a worrying trend in recent popular novels. It seems like many books are unnecessarily long. As Ian McEwan has said, “Very few novels earn their length.” Even when the book itself is pretty good, too much of it can be exhausting. I’m thinking particularly of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, but I’m sure there are other examples. Like movies, books have become super-sized. Do publishers think we need more pages to feel like we’re getting good value, even when all those extra pages don’t have that much more to say? Perhaps a long book, like a long movie, is better positioned to win a major award? Or does the job of editor just not exist anymore?
I’ve come to the point where if I pick up a book and see that it’s over 500 pages, I put it right back on the shelf. I don’t have the endurance to sit through a 3-hour movie or to read a massive tome anymore, it seems. I may be missing out on a few good long books, but with my extra reading time, I’m cultivating a new appreciation for the short novel. I admire an author who can deliver an impact in few words.
Some recommended short novels: Persuasion by Jane Austen; The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells; The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler; The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson; The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin; Grendel by John Gardner; A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro; Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. Want more? Buzzfeed has a list (of course).
P.S. I currently have two genuine bricks sitting on my “to read” shelf, which I promise myself I’ll get to as soon as I feel like sinking into a long book again. They are classics, though: Middlemarch and The Count of Monte Cristo.
What Makes This Book So Great is a compendium of blog posts about Jo Walton’s rereads of books, not necessarily all science fiction and fantasy. These are blog posts originally published on Tor.com, so they are short, breezy, and quick to read. Walton is such a prodigious reader, averaging a book or more a day (I wonder that she finds time to write!). She shares many interesting insights into the whole act of reading, as well as the genres of science fiction and fantasy. Particularly enlightening for me was the idea that people who grow up reading science fiction and fantasy have internalized over time the special rules of the genre, while primarily mainstream writers may feel at sea when they try these genres; the flip side is authors who try writing genre who haven’t read a lot of it, and fail miserably. All of this content is available free online if you want to hunt it down, but it’s handy to have it in book form, and it’s of special interest to anyone who loves reading, whatever they may read. She’s certainly convinced me that rereading your favorites (and not-so-favorites) is worthwhile.
Some of my favorites you can read now: SF Reading Protocols; The Suck Fairy; Gulp or Sip; on cosy catastrophes; on Gaudy Night; on Middlemarch.
Some interesting links I’ve stumbled across lately:
For my yearly reading project in 2015, I have been focusing on women writers, specifically of speculative fiction. This project has led me down lots of wonderful side alleys discovering new writers, revisiting old favorites, and thinking about what they have to say. It’s also helped me understand the bias that women writers continue to face when it comes to getting published, reviewed, and honored. Here I want to share some related links and also encourage every reader to seek out more women writers to add to their To Read lists.
I am putting together a list of great books by women writers to read. It is now over 150 books. I’ll probably share it when it gets up to 200 or so titles. In the meantime, here are some women writers who I have been reading lately to go out and discover right now: the aforementioned Margaret Atwood and Daphne du Maurier; Shirley Jackson; Patricia Highsmith; Ursula K. Le Guin; Octavia Butler; Jane Austen; Stella Gibbons; Dorothy L. Sayers; Harper Lee; Tana French; Mary Doria Russell; Kate Atkinson; Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie; Ruth Ozeki; Jhumpa Lahiri; Ann Leckie; Emily St. John Mandel.
Patricia Highsmith, from 20 Photos of Famous Authors Looking Badass at Flavorwire.
Following on my last post, I agree with Neil Gaiman that libraries are of vital importance to our society. Like many readers, I grew up in a library, basically, quickly graduating from the kids’ section to the adult books. I remember systematically reading my way through every Agatha Christie (she wrote something like 85 of them). For a kid like me, the library was my refuge.
Libraries are frequent targets for budget cuts by government officials who don’t understand the vital link between reading and developing minds that can think, imagine, and innovate. Many children don’t have access to books and computers in their homes, and libraries are the only place where they can foster a love of reading. That’s why it’s vitally important for those of us who love books and reading, and who understand just how important they are, to support our local libraries as much as we possibly can. A good way to start is by joining the library’s Friends group. Take part in library activities. Support events featuring writers or aimed at improving children’s reading experiences. I recently joined the Board of our Friends of the Library group, and it has been a wonderfully enriching experience for me as I take part in supporting library programs and our local literary scene.
Books and reading are my primary passion in life. Even though almost everything I read now is on the Kindle, I believe the need for strong libraries is greater than ever. Libraries are the repositories for our culture, the archives of our rich wealth of information, and increasingly, librarians are the experts who help us navigate it all. Libraries create future readers, and they in turn become the thinkers and innovators that make our civilization strong. What could be more important?
“I’m going to tell you that libraries are important. I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I’m going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.”
This was actually published in 2013, based on a lecture Gaiman gave to the Reading Agency, but it so wonderfully expresses why reading, and especially reading fiction, is absolutely critical for the future of our society and why we all need to support libraries as much as we can, that it bears reading and rereading and constant reinforcing: Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming | Books | The Guardian.
First, it was slow food, then slow blogging — now slow reading is the latest watchword. In our fast-paced world, movements designed to get us to slow down and really experience what we are doing always have my support.
Here’s a great way to practice slow reading: start a book journal. Whether it’s a notebook or a blog or an online tool like LibraryThing, journaling every book you read forces you to slow down and really think about what you’ve read. For me, my journals — which I started keeping in 2001 — have made me more thoughtful about what I’ve read and helped me form connections I might not otherwise have made. Since I started journaling my reading, I’ve chosen better books to read and integrated my reading more meaningfully into my own writing and my life in general.
I still keep a paper journal in which I write the title, author and publication date of each book I finish or abandon, my initial impressions of the book, and the date I finished it or abandoned it. For books I really like or that spawned a lot of initial thoughts, I write a second, more polished draft of the review and post it here or on LibraryThing.
How do you journal your reading and how has your journal benefited your reading?