Big Books

Are Books Becoming Too Long to Read?

Are writers including every nugget of research, and are publishers churning out humongous volumes to inflate e-book prices? Marc Wortman asks.

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We read books by the word. But lately publishers seem to sell them by the pound. For a book to win recognition as BIG these days, it must be weighty. Quite literally. Is it time for publishing to go on a diet?

“Art is long, life is short,” so goes an ancient aphorism. Of late it seems to mean a lifetime isn’t long enough to read a good book.

Here's a list of a few recent books I'd love to read—but probably won't have time to: Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs (630 pages); Jean Edward Smith's Eisenhower in War and Peace (976); Steve Coll's investigation of ExxonMobil, Private Empire (685); Robert Caro's fourth volume in his life of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power (736); John Lewis Gaddis's Pulitzer-winning biography, George F. Kennan (800); Pulitzer history-award-winner Manning Marable’s Malcolm X (608); and, finally, Daniel Yergin's The Quest (804), sequel to his Pulitzer-winning The Prize, a history of the energy industry and its role in global conflicts.

That's a total of 5,239 pages. If you need to catch up, like I do, by reading Caro’s first three installments and Yergin’s earlier oil history, add 3,712 more. Now we’ve got 8,951 pages. Let's subtract 15 percent for footnotes, bibliography, index, acknowledgments, and other publishing apparatus (though I enjoy looking through them). You're left with 7,608 pages of reading. At a brisk two minutes a page, that's about 250 hours of reading. Or, put another way, I’d have to spend four concentrated, unbroken hours reading these books each day, day after day, and in a little more than 60 days I'd have finished 11 books. Eleven.

Were I to cross the finish line of that reading marathon, I’d be sitting within certain small corners of the intellectual conversations of our moment. All 11 were produced by reputable writers, scholars, and thinkers. They almost certainly merit a careful read. But the same could be said for many other recent very long, BIG books, often books that come out nearly simultaneously on the same subjects, from biographies to policy issues to histories of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of course, all this reading is only for those who have the leisure or professional obligation to read at length.

The trouble is that big books are barriers to the cultural conversation as much as they are the basis for it. Can you think of a recent book reviewed, regarded, and honored as a serious work of thoughtful intellect that doesn't run on and on and on? I came up with one: Stephen Greenblatt's nonfiction Pulitzer winner, The Swerve, which stands out in part by virtue of its succinctness, at 320 pages.

Every life is epic, every historical moment a saga, every narrative a cosmos, no serious book less than monumental, and my reading life is but a finite one. What happened to today’s media-saturated, neurologically attenuated attention span? When we hear that book publishing is rapidly becoming a quaint and precious occupation, more akin to medieval monks illuminating manuscripts than app developers, why do the hulking literary McMansions of our swiftly passing moment rival Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (850 pages abridged), Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (688), and Marx’s Capital (784), in page heft but rarely in intellectual might? Why do so many writers feel compelled to write big books?

In part, it seems that big now equates with importance and value. That substitutes form for function, and frequently evidences a writer's ego—or perhaps an editor’s laziness—and indifference to a reader's limited time and attention. Life is a busy place, but don't tell that to those who write big books.

Those 11 weighty printed books and the two linear feet or so of valuable shelf real estate they take up amount to an advertisement for compacting them into an e-book. But the e-world may in fact be the fast-food purveyor behind book obesity.

First, there is the ready availability of vast amounts of online archival material and secondary sources. Blame it on Google. In the world B.G., if an academic scholar or journalist wanted to search out sources, that required a great deal of time spent on the road and in libraries cross-referencing works in the stacks. While sometimes a researcher bumped into treasures serendipitously, the work was often costly and time-consuming, a drudgery hard on the eyes, rarely yielding anything beyond a solid footnote.

But even B.G., the rise of the big book already seemed a central fact of modern publishing. The critic Dwight Macdonald lamented his own confrontation with BIG books half a century ago and looked longingly back to an age when writing took imagination and talent, not just research. “The thinkers of earlier ages,” he rued, “had one decisive advantage over those of today: they could draw on very little research.” His words, first printed in 1957, excoriated academics and journalists alike for their “verbal pomposity, elaboration of the obvious, repetition, trivia, low-grade statistics, [and] tedious factification.” His complaint seems more relevant than ever in a new collection, Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain (320 invaluable pages). He wrote long before the digitization of everything.

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So much is now at a writer’s fingertips in a summer rental’s wireless connection that he or she can explore deeper and deeper, scraping the very Mariana Trench floor of a subject. Yet little distinguishes surface from depth. And from there, why send back a telegram when all the flotsam, jetsam, mucky undersides, teeming with life, can be squeezed between the covers of a book?

The fault does not reside solely with writers. For publishers, more, too, seems better. The e-book economy itself makes a virtue out of page counts. E-books have very quickly become the tail wagging the book-sales dog. With prices more or less in the single digits to low teens, the e-reader makes page counts a selling point for books. Skim online e-reader comments about books they’ve downloaded, and a remarkable number actually rate book purchases on a cost-per-page basis. When readers buy books by digital weight, so to speak, the bigger the big book, the greater its value. The big book is the higher-brow cousin to the Hollywood trend toward longer-running blockbusters, pumped up with ever more special effects.

To a certain extent, the publishing world has always placed a premium on big books. Once, though, they were treasures, not mass-marketed commodities. Few 19th-century homes possessed more than a Bible and a handful of revered classics. When people acquired, often by subscription, major new books, such as Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Memoirs (700 pages in the Modern Library edition) or Henry Adams’s History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, which fills more than 2,700 pages in the Library of America edition, owners anticipated that these books would endure. They became family heirlooms.

Once works deemed for the ages, today’s books are commodities, more akin to the paper they are printed on or the e-reader on which they appear than the essential cultural core of an educated person’s experience. Like transoceanic jumbo jets dropping out of the sky onto airport tarmacs each morning, big books fly from publishers at a rate that staggers even the most diligent speed reader.

Maybe it’s time the overstressed book-traffic controllers went on strike.

Early in the last century, Henry James famously derided what he called “large loose baggy monsters”: the 19th-century novels, “with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary.” For his part, he insisted, “as waste is only life sacrificed and thereby prevented from ‘counting,’ I delight in a deep-breathing economy and an organic form.”

I’m counting. We have no reading life to waste.