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.