Very few very long novels earn their length. My fingers are always twitching for a blue pencil.
I’ve never met a reader who doesn’t like short novels . . .What a short novel asks is that you commit, in one sitting, the same amount of time to reading as you frequently commit to a film or a football match. Make that commitment and, in many cases, the payoff outweighs the investment.
Let’s face it: Most books are too long. If I’m going to read a book that’s 400 pages or more, it had better be spectacular. It seems to me that books, like people, have been getting heavier over the past 20 years — and recent studies confirm my suspicion. The Guardian says:
Books are steadily increasing in size, according to a survey that has found the average number of pages has grown by 25% over the last 15 years.
A study of more than 2,500 books appearing on New York Times bestseller and notable books lists and Google’s annual survey of the most discussed books reveals that the average length has increased from 320 pages in 1999 to 400 pages in 2014.
Even children’s books are getting longer; one study states that the average length of a middle-grade book published in 1996 was 137 pages, while in 2016 the average length was 290 pages.
Peirene Press, a boutique publishing company based in London, specializes in short books. They “only publish books of less than 200 pages that can be read in the same time it takes to watch a DVD.” What if book clubs, especially those whose members aren’t showing up or aren’t finishing (or even starting) the assigned reading, took a leaf out of Peirene’s book, so to speak, and only chose books that are 200 pages or shorter? Length does not necessarily correspond with complexity or quality. The Great Gatsby, the quintessential Great American Novel and required reading for almost every high school student, is only 180 pages long.
Book clubs are often too ambitious with their selections, choosing books that they think they should read, not books they really want to read, AND picking books that are very long. One book club with which I’m intimately acquainted chose Barkskins by Annie Proulx (736 pages), with less than stellar results: no one finished the book. They still managed to have a great discussion, and everyone agreed the book was worth finishing. This group, all great readers, had much better luck with News of the World (224 pages), Homegoing (320 pages), and The Book of Unknown Americans (304 pages), which everyone in the group read and loved. (However, another favorite was A Little Life, 720 pages long.)
The average reading speed is about 300 words per minute. A trade paperback has roughly 300 words per page, depending on variables such as font size and amount of dialogue. So a 200-page book takes the average reader a little over three hours to read. I think anyone who’s committed to a book group can devote three hours to the monthly selection, unless it’s truly dreadful. Here are thumbnail reviews of ten books, both old and new, that you can polish off on a Saturday afternoon. The New York Times describes The Sense of an Ending as “a short book, but not a slight one”, which actually characterizes all these books.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (163 pages)
Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, this novel is much more accessible and plot-driven than the typical Booker Prize novel. Tony Webster, a retired historian in his sixties, receives an unusual bequest that causes him to reflect on his past. This was a favorite of my coed book group.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (184 pages)
Based on the author’s experience with “re-education” during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, this is the tale of two city boys sent to the countryside for manual labor. They discover a hidden suitcase full of Western literature and begin their own program of re-education, introducing the village seamstress to Balzac, Cervantes, Tolstoy, and other forbidden writers.
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift (177 pages)
Downton Abbey fans will love this book, which NPR says “is one of those deceptively spare tales (like The Sense of an Ending) that punch well above their weight.” Jane Fairchild, now a successful author in her nineties, was a housemaid to an upper-class British family after World War I — and was involved in an affair with one of the family’s wealthy neighbors. How can you resist a novel that opens with this sentence: “Once upon a time, before the boys were killed and when there were more horses than cars, before the male servants disappeared and they made do, at Upleigh and at Beechwood, with just a cook and a maid . . .”?
The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain (159 pages)
When a Parisian bookseller comes upon a lost handbag containing a red notebook and no identification, he tries to track down the owner. This lovely little book about the power of kindness is just right for readers who find many contemporary novels “depressing”, and it has more depth than you might first imagine. (Two of Laurain’s other books are available in English translation as well — The President’s Hat and French Rhapsody. They’re both delightful, and barely above the 200-page cutoff.)
Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan (146 pages)
Manny DeLeon, manager of a failing Red Lobster, has just learned that his restaurant is closing and he’s been demoted to assistant manager at a nearby Olive Garden. Despite a blizzard that keeps customers and employees away on the restaurant’s final night, Manny won’t close early. It doesn’t sound like much of a story, but O’Nan (one of my favorite authors) has written an emotionally resonant reflection on the American Dream.
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (192 pages)
Addie Moore and Louis Waters, both widowed and in their seventies, are long-time neighbors who seek respite from loneliness in an unusual way: through a platonic friendship that includes sleeping in the same bed. Kent Haruf gives more insight into the lives and longings of his characters in less than 200 pages than many authors do in books double that length.
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (170 pages)
A runner-up for last year’s National Book Award, Another Brooklyn is a poetic coming-of-age story set in 1970s Brooklyn. I was tempted to race through, but forced myself to slow down and savor the spare and beautiful language.
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (120 pages)
Queen Elizabeth II stumbles upon a bookmobile parked by Buckingham Palace and discovers a love of reading, with amusing and unexpected consequences. It’s a perfect book for any bookworm — I l love that the Queen keeps a reading journal.
Which do you prefer — a big fat book you can get lost in for days or weeks, or a short novel you can read in a couple of hours?