Tuesday, August 19, 2008

In Support of Long Novels

I just finished a 600+ page novel (The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan), and that got me thinking about other long novels I’ve read recently:

  • Anna Karenina (~900 pages) by Leo Tolstoy
  • Darkmans (~900 pages) by Nicola Barker
  • The Brothers Karamazov (~800 pages) by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • The Savage Detectives (~600 pages) by Roberto Bolano
  • Heyday (~600 pages) by Kurt Anderson
  • The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (~600 pages) by David Wroblewski
  • Oliver Twist (~600 pages) by Charles Dickens
  • Life: a User’s Manual (~500 pages) by Georges Perec
  • Great Expectations (~500 pages) by Charles Dickens
It’s not easy to find the time (and the attention span) to read long novels like these. Also, such books have associated opportunity costs. I figure that for every long novel I read, I lose the opportunity to read at least two shorter novels (assuming a finite life expectancy). Why read Anna Karenina when I can read The Great Gatsby and To the Lighthouse in the same amount of time? Or The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and A Farewell to Arms? Instead of the above 10 long novels, I could have read 20 shorter novels. So, why did I read these books?

For me, there are a couple answers to this question. For one thing, book selection is rarely a rational exercise. There may be elements of rationality tied up in the decision (e.g., review deadlines, release dates), but my choice of my next novel remains essentially an emotional one. I don’t look at a stack of books and attempt to calculate just how long each book will take to read, keeping in mind my life expectancy. Instead, I pick a book based on what I feel like reading at that moment. I suspect this is what most people do. Sometimes, a long novel is exactly the type of book I’m craving.

On top of my emotional vagaries, there’s another very good reason to read long novels. In my opinion, nothing can create an alternate world quite as well as a long novel. With space and time to create numerous characters, places, and events, a reader can get lost in the world of a good long novel in a way that’s not possible while reading The Old Man and the Sea. Although I enjoy reading fiction of all lengths (see my post on the benefits of short stories here), it’s the long novels I get particularly attached to.


Anonymous said...

I love this line: "book selection is rarely a rational exercise." That is so true. I think that is why most readers have a TBR stack.

As for long novels, I agree with you that I can get particularly attached to a long novel because of the space the author has to develop character and plot. Still, I do feel that opportunity cost at times. I guess I'm just glad that there are varying lengths of books. :)

Gwen Dawson said...

Me too!