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.
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