Molnar: The Long Read

Feb 12, 2016

I’ve been reading fiction set in the first Century, a time when few could read and even fewer had access to the prized scrolls of the time – which, while filled with the writings of the ancient world’s most brilliant philosophers and mathematicians, would probably have been poor entertainment for a long Vermont winter.

Today, a mind-boggling number of titles can be read on paper or screen or listened to while driving or dusting. Every year some 305-thousand titles are published in the U.S. alone!

Choice is good. More choice is better. But too much choice is overwhelming, especially when deciding between a volume of roughly 300 pages and a tome three times that long.

Which brings me to my only peeve about today’s wealth of books – which is why so many recent books are so very long. I find myself questioning such a long-term commitment, even to something touted as the next great American novel. I’ve read the 771-page “Goldfinch,” and having spent part of my career at Reader’s Digest, I kept mentally chopping away entire sections. I’ve also read “All the Light We Cannot See” and I wouldn’t have cut a single one of its 531 pages. At the moment, I’m reading a historical novel called “Captivity,” which weighs in at 900 pages. Whether it’ll be worth such a chunk of my life is still unclear.

Since numbers are hard to come by, I may be imagining that books are on steroids, but an annual comparison of the ten books that won literary awards and/or were best sellers over the past hundred years shows a bulge that started in the 1970s and continues today – a trend that seems to make little sense given that ever more books are being published, our lives have only become busier and more fragmented, and our attention spans are said to be on a downward spiral.

Some books demand extreme length, and if the quality’s there, fine. But I’m skeptical that today’s frequent bloat really is necessary to the integrity of so many works. Maybe it’s simply that laptops have made it easier to write longer. Or maybe it’s that nobody’s really editing these books. The truth is, many bear the imprint of marketing, not editorial values.

A bit of wisdom on brevity is attributed to Samuel Johnson. "Was there ever yet anything written by mere man that was wished longer by its readers?” But he then lists three that were.

So a few books definitely earn their length.

But only a few.