There has been a lot of chatter about big books since the release of Hilary Mantel’s hugely anticipated and physically huge book, The Mirror and the Light.
The book concludes the wonderful Thomas Cromwell series, starting with Wolf Hall, followed by Bring Up the Bodies. At 863 pages, it is almost the size of the previous two, already hefty, books put together.
While I have yet to even see a copy of the book, released today, I’ll be trying my hardest to get my hands on it and have a read as soon as I can, no matter what size it is.
But other readers are not so sure.
According to The Age books editor Jason Steger, one reviewer suggested that the length indicated a lack of editing. Another wrote: “Unlike another superlatively accomplished historical novelist, Penelope Fitzgerald, Mantel elects to govern an enormous cast, assuming a high level of involvement by her readers and spinning out her stories beyond the remit of what might reasonably be expected to engage anyone …”
On Twitter, John Cotter (@smalllights) asked: “What are the long (800pg+) novels post WWII that don’t wind up degenerating into nihilistic bleats of despair? I can think of maybe two.”
In the replies, A Suitable Boy was mentioned first – one of the best and most memorable ‘big books’ that I have read.
The Royal Family was also listed, alongside the Cromwell trilogy and City on Fire.
Then there is the argument that big books are bulky and difficult to manoeuvre from the comfort of bed (or wherever you might choose to read). Many have been the times I’ve had to shake life into a dead arm that has been supporting a (physically) weighty read.
With the advent of the eReader, this poses less of a problem. However, when reading an eReader, strangely, I am far more aware of the length of the book. It might be due to the percentage that shows up at the bottom of the screen, and which serves as some kind of challenge to reach 100%. Sometimes I’m even tempted to choose a shorter book on my Kindle because of this, reasoning that I’ll move up the percentages more quickly.
Ultimately, when it comes to physical books, I think that bigger is better, as long as the book is really good. It offers the opportunity to become immersed in the story to such a degree that it is difficult letting it go after it has been finished.
This is the case with A Suitable Boy, but also with tomes such as Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, The Thornbirds and A Fine Balance.
The brick-like A Little Life seems ridiculously long when you see its size, but apparently it is well worth the time and effort, and the length of the book was necessary to tell the story.
On the other hand, I found Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged to be unnecessarily laboured, almost as if it was trying to convince the reader of a certain ideology (which it was!).
I asked the members of the Facebook Book Club what they thought, and their unanimous answer was that they loved long books, with the caveat that they had to be ‘good’ books. No one wants to spend much time with a mediocre one … although even a short book is too long if it’s not enjoyable.
Unfortunately, the most difficult part of reading a long book is beginning it; I have had The Luminaries on my shelf for years. Although I have heard great reports about it, I never feel like I have the time to commit myself to such a long book. I would also like to read classic novels The Brothers Karamazov, after hearing it was one of Hillary Clinton’s favourites, and The Count of Monte Cristo, are also lingering on my bookshelf, unread.
I know that once I have overcome the hurdle of opening these tomes, I am likely to enjoy the stories. And perhaps the sense of achievement after having finished such a long book will make me remember it even more fondly.