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Does size matter when it comes to books?

There is a copy of Moby Dick on my book shelf that I aim to read one day. But the size of the book means that every time I look at my tbr pile, I guilty skirt that particular brick-sized tome and select a skinnier option.

It reminds me of my Year 12 literature class, I remember the outcry when Anna Karenina was chosen as one of our texts; the teacher ended up swapping it halfway through the term as few students could commit to the lengthy book.

It is not just school students or lazy readers who refuse to read books deemed too lengthy – I know of a book club which jokes that they will not consider books longer than 300 pages after suffering through one particularly long, unpopular book.

All of this begs the question of whether there is value in reading longer books, and is it worth the additional time, given that there is only a limited number of books anyone can read in their lifetimes?

Recently, I finished reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, comprising four books. It was a commitment I would have struggled to make if the books weren’t divided up into four parts, and had instead been one mammoth book. As such, I could read one novel, take some time out with another completely different book, and opt back into the series afterwards. However, if I had been put off with by the length of the story in the series, I would have missed out immensely.

The length of the series has enabled Ferrante to fully explore the lives of the characters she has created. The story follows two girls as they and their communities aged and evolved. The changes, and lack of change, were fascinating, and the sense of familiarity and engagement with the books could not have been possible in an abbreviated format.

Similarly, as a booklover, I was one of the handful students in my Year 12 class who ended up reading Anna Karenina, and I loved it. So much so that it is one of very few books that I have re-read (alongside the far flimsier The Catcher in the Rye).

Did I get more value out of the extra hours spent reading Tolstoy’s masterpiece? Or should I have read at least three shorter classics in the same time that it took to read Anna Karenina?

It would seem that many would say ‘yes’ given the popularity of the novella. Melbourne University Press CEO and Publisher in Chief Louise Adler spoke on The Garret podcast about her publishing company’s success with the essay-style publications On … series, including Leigh Sales’ On Doubt, Don Watson’s On Indignation, Germaine Greer’s On Rape, Fleur Anderson’s On Sleep and Sarah Ferguson’s On Mother.

She said writers had appreciated the opportunity to write shorter publications, with those with other commitments finding writing 10,000 to 15,000 words for the series to be manageable alongside their other projects.

Adler said the ‘bookette’ has also appealed to readers.

“People have told me they like the length … people are finding pleasure in that length rather than the full-length book.”

In 2016, Brisbane author Nick Earls released a series of five novellas titled Wisdom Tree. The loosely linked stories were praised in The Sydney Morning Herald as “a triumphant an extraordinary piece of fiction within an only apparently modest compass.”

Speaking to the ABC, Earls said the response to his series had been overwhelmingly positive.

“The reviews have been probably the best I’ve ever got and readers have really got it. The feedback from readers has been great, so creatively it’s been very satisfying.”

Is this the direction in which publishing could, or should, move?

While they might be longer than these essays, many recent bestsellers have a moderate word count. Gone Girl, The Dry, The Girl on the Train, anything by Liane Moriarty.

They are books that can easily be finished within a beach holiday, can be carried in a handbag or completed in time for this week’s book club meeting.

However, a 2015 study found that, on average, books are actually getting longer, particularly literary works. Some recent example of particularly long books include Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize winning The Luminaries (which is sitting on my bookshelf, waiting for a time when I have the motivation to tackle it), Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

Literary agent Clare Alexander told The Guardian, “Despite all the talk of the death of the book because of competition from other media, people who love to read appear to prefer a long and immersive narrative, the very opposite of a sound bit or snippets of information that we all spend our lives downloading from Google.”

For me, I’m just glad that there are so many options when it comes to book lengths – there are those that we can immerse ourselves in over weeks, exploring in depth the lives of their characters, but also, there are the books that offer a snapshot of a life, offering the satisfaction of a quick, often intense experience.

I will always be glad that I resisted the impulse to put down Anna Karenina in favour of a shorter book, but equally, I’m grateful for some of the shorter books that pack a punch, from the perfectly succinct The Picture of Dorian Gray to the short and sweet The Little Prince.

However, I wish that Atlas Shrugged had been a third of the size that it was so that I wouldn’t have spent so long finding out why almost everyone hated it so much.

Ultimately, it all comes down to the individual book – there is much to be gained from both long and shorter stories. Some require time, while others say what they need to say within fewer pages. When it comes to books, size really doesn’t matter.


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