In praise of short books: to start and finish in one sitting is a rare, unbridled joy

From The Guardian:

n recent weeks and months, more by chance than planning, I’ve been reading more much shorter books than I usually do. A slow and careful reader, I take on average a week to finish a 300-page novel (I once read that most adult novels are between 70,000 to 120,000 words). Nonfiction books usually take me significantly longer.

I recently took six weeks to finish Mister Mister by Guy Gunaratne (374 pages) for a review – but that had as much to do with my walking away after every 20 or so pages, sometimes for days, to contemplate the provocation of this fine novel.

But the more concise book – the novel of 55,000 words, the novella of, say, 35,000 and the extended essay of 30,000 words – has really been grabbing me lately.

We – I – do live in a binge culture. We’ve been primed to want it all now. Every episode of each series of a made-for-streaming drama in a weekend. Give it to me. The entire audiobook on a road trip or sleepless night. Now please. All episodes of that fantastic podcast on a long flight.

All of this, of course, challenges our attention and fragments our concentration when it comes to the written word. Especially in the form of a book, best read when the device is in another room – or the fridge.

But the shorter book may be something of an antidote to this. So allow me to tell, briefly, of its virtues.

To sit after dinner one evening, start a book and finish it by bedtime without moving is an unbridled joy. Or to read half a book in 45 minutes one evening, to go to sleep thinking about it and wake up excited at the prospect of reading the rest before work, feels like such a guilty and rewarding pleasure.

Recently, while immersed in both Mister Mister and the divisive Bret Easton Ellis’s The Shards (rollicking, unsettling and brilliant, in my view; 177,905 words, 608 pages), I reread – for the fourth, maybe fifth time – Kenneth Cook’s classic Wake in Fright (56,000 words, 224 pages) in a few hours one night. It’s a masterful work of very skilful brevity; a thoughtful, fast-paced ride into a boozy, macho, violent, misogynistic national interior – an antipodean Heart of Darkness. It followed me into my dreams. I woke, if not quite in fright, then certainly with it front of consciousness.

In for a penny: given I was already in that headspace, a few days later I reread, in a sitting, Joseph Conrad’s actual Heart of Darkness (38,000 words, 109 pages).

On the nonfiction front, earlier this month in two 45-minute sittings, I read Jeanne Ryckmans’ tense, elegantly written (and disarmingly black-humoured) Trust. At 30,000 words and 119 pages, it is a hang-on-tight rollercoaster of emotion and foreboding.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

9 thoughts on “In praise of short books: to start and finish in one sitting is a rare, unbridled joy”

  1. Yes, contemporary novels are much too long. Oh for the days of Muriel Spark and Simenon, not to mention Richard Stark.

  2. as someone who fairly routinely finishes books in one sitting, I agree it’s a joy

    it’s just sometimes a joy that takes a 8-10 hour sitting 😀

    • Been there, done that.
      I’ve been known to get by on 1.5 hours of sleep…
      …followed by a 9PM crash… 😀

      Some books (and games) are too good to drop. “Just one more chapter…”

      In contrast, I’m not much for shirt stories today. I prefer a full meal to snacking…

      Back in college I read LoTR in a week…twice, that week.
      A roomate did it in two days. (He had Balrog dreams that night.)

    • The OP should have separated this out by genre. For fantasy and sci-fi, I like a longer read, usually. If it takes place in The World As We Know It, it can be short; a novella is fine with me. But a secondary world, a la Tolkien, I need to settle in and get comfortable. This goes for historical fiction, too. Books in a series can be short, e.g., the Star Trek novels from back in the day. The key is whether this a world I need to get immersed in, or is it something I’m already familiar with?

      Horror books only need to be long enough to get me to care enough about the characters so it matters if they die. This doesn’t have to be doorstopper, though.

      Same with video games, if you’re not promising me 60 hours of gameplay then the game had better be an expansion pack or a DLC or one of those casual games you play in line at the grocery store.

      None of the books referenced in the OP take place in a “special world,” so 300 pages or less makes sense to me. A “saga” would obviously be an exception, but those tend to be genre fiction (the ones I’ve read, anyway). I haven’t read “generic contemporary fiction” in a while, so I was unaware they’d grown lengthier. Are they bloated? More expansive?

      • I assume you’ve seen the catfights over the game that needs 20 hours to reveal itself, right?
        A lot of game reviewers have no patience.

        (My first playthrough on MORROWIND was six months worth of evenings. MASS EFFECT I did a bit more. I don’t stop until my character is practically divine. Developers call it the “illusion of competence” but I strive for the real thing.)

        Books I really like I reread every few years. Comfort food for the soul.
        Short stories are fast food and leave me hungry for morem

        • For a year or more I didn’t happen to have a TV. I bought my house when CRT televisions were being phased out, so I left mine behind when I moved. I was playing Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 1 or 2, and so I never even missed the TV. I think I got ~18 months of fun out of those games when you add in replays.

          Between the original games, the DLCs, the expansion packs and replays, I just didn’t feel a need to get a TV. If an RPG doesn’t have high immersion and re-playability I don’t want to bother with it.

          Oh, and I notice some of the people talking about “20 hours to get going” admitted they were playing the game “wrong.” Some thought the game was going to be one way (randomly wandering around) and didn’t realize there was a main story they could do. *Shrug*. It’s not a given that games journalists actually play games or understand them, so I’m not surprised.

          I really only read short stories as anthologies, as discovery tools for new-to-me novelists. But they otherwise don’t hold my attention. Fast food is a good analogy for them.

          • Playing the game wrong has a bit of an excuse (for somebody living under a rock) in that earlier Bethesda RPGs do go easier if you explore-discover-experiment *before* jumping in to the main quest.

            FALLOUT 4, for one, you’re best advised to clean up Sanctuary and build a water farm first, then explore, *then* go looking for the kidnapped child. 🙂

            However, all the release hype has been warning people that STARFIELD is different and you need to do most if not all of the “main” storyline before jumping into the pool. A game with 80 perks, each with 4 levels gatekept by challenges, and no level cap, is not to be played and finished in a weekend like a QTE narrative game.

            Me, I figure I’ll still be in tbe settled systems when DREAD WOLF comes out.
            “And loving it”.

  3. I wonder how the popularity of streaming TV with fifty episodes has affected book length. I think it really got started with House of Cards when Netflix posted all episodes of Season One on Tuesday morning. Others will wait until all ten episodes in a season have gone up week by week before binging.

    Just for fun, the final episode of Apple’s Season 2 of Foundation airs this week. Then we can continue trying to figure out what book the thing is based on.

    • Or ignore it like the other Asimov video “adaptations”. There’s only so much tooth grinding cringe one can stand.

      Streaming has not only brought single day release and last day season binges, but most critically, variable lenth episodes. Instead of a 42-minute straight jacket, series episodes can be just as long as the narrative requires. Anything from 25 to 90 minutes on an episode by episode basis. No unnecessary padding or cutting content. And no need to provide break points for ads.

      It’s really a different format and one where, like ebooks, the narrative dictates length and pacing, not broadcast schedules or ad slots.

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