I enjoyed this GAWKER essay by Tom Whyman about Really Long Books:
Learning to Love Really Long Books
Especially this part:
A book is Really Long because there is something essentially stupid about it, something broken: its length is the product of the writer having no ultimate clue how to say what they want to be saying. Its length is often glorious – but it is also an admission of failure.
I don’t even know if that’s true, but I like the idea so much that I don’t care if it’s true.
The Really Long Book is on my mind lately, because I have a stack of Really/Fairly Long Books to read. Seven of them, to be exact. Well, no, six, because I’ve already made my way through Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash, which isn’t actually that long–480 pages. But it FELT long. It felt insanely long, and here’s why.
This book is so overwhelmingly clever that every third or fourth sentence, I had to stand back and marvel at how hilariously clever it was. Just one satiric thrust after another, right into the belly of society. It has its flaws, but I doubt at the time of its writing these were seen as flaws. They were more likely seen as allowable stereotypes that we now see (at worst) as offensive, or (at best) as lazy characterizations. But they are cleverly done, there is no denying it. And all these cleverly satirical people do very clever things in a world that is oh-so-cleverly constructed. And every time I had to stand back and think, Ho-ho-ho, Mr. Stephenson, what a brilliantly clever man you are, it yanked me out of the story. That could happen multiple times per paragraph. This made the <500 pages more like >2000 pages, as far as reading time.
I also have Seveneves and Cryptomicon to read there on the stack. I’m assured by my friend James that these are mature works of a master of his craft. I’m hoping he’s right. I think he might be, simply because my favorite parts of Snowcrash were the info-dump conversations between Hiro the Protagonist and the Librarian, in which I learned about Sumerian language, ancient myth, the Babel Event, and so on. I ate that stuff up, as opposed to the various battles and vehicle chases and harpoonings and so on, which bored me.
So, three of the seven Fairly (as opposed to Really) Long Books are by Stephenson.
The fourth one on my list is an actual Really Long Book; The Fall of Babel, the final book in the Babel series by Josiah Bancroft. This book is 638 pages, minus addendums. And it’s in a TINY type with narrow margins, or maybe it’s not, maybe I am just so daunted by this tome that I’m exaggerating to myself about the formatting. But I have a hunch that if this book were formatted in more standard way, it would be over 1K pages.
I can’t figure out why I haven’t read it. I waited impatiently for this book, I preordered it and tracked when it would arrive, and it finally did, and now it’s just sitting here, daunting me. Maybe it’s that the book sort of spoils itself with that title, doesn’t it? I mean, you write about a multilayered city state in a tower called Babel, and then you give me this title, The Fall of Babel? Gosh I wonder what happens to that Tower of Babel I’ve been reading about for three previous (enormous, brilliant, absorbing, fascinating) novels. I am completely absorbed and absolutely stressed out by reading these books. It has to do with the anxiety level created by the premise, and by the skill of the writing. Maybe I’m not ready to immerse myself in 600+ pages worth of high-stakes anxiety right now, even though it will be worth it. I don’t know.
Another Fairly Long Book is Purity by Jonathan Franzen, which I’ll get to and no doubt enjoy. Franzen writes lavishly about characters he seems to despise but secretly loves. I find it personally satisfying. There, my heart says, this is exactly how one should see the world, clearly and without mercy, in many pages that crackle with whip-smart humor that verges on cruelty! Yes! His books are long, but the time they take is time well spent. Still, I can’t make myself crack the cover because I have all these other big books to read.
Also in the stack is an actual Really Long Book; Maia by Richard Adams. Remember him? Watership Downs and The Plague Dogs? Well, Maia is 1223 pages in mass-market-paperback! Holy crap, what did it look like in hardback? Could you even lift it? Did you have to put it on one of those wooden OED stands? At some point I’m going to find out, as it comes highly recommended by a friend over cocktails.
At this point, if you’ve scanned the essay and read this blog post, you may have noticed something about all the books mentioned. Yes. It’s true. Every Really Long Book mentioned by Tom Whyman, and all of the Fairly Long Books and Really Long Books mentioned by me, are written by…men.
Is anyone surprised by this? I know I’m not.
Rather than launching into the whys of that, I’d rather point out the only Really Long Book by a woman in my stack, Marguerite Young’s Miss Mackintosh, My Darling. It is thought to be the longest novel ever published (correct me at will, I don’t care if I’m wrong so you won’t offend me). I ordered a used copy (a boxed set of two volumes) about a year ago. I got about 40 pages in before realizing I’d have to get back to it once I’m retired. There are too many books to read in this world, and I’m going to have to do this one in deep dive.
There are many, many Fairly Long Books written by women, like Joyce Carol Oates’ Bellefleur, and her A Bloodsmoor Romance (both of which I love). And, you know, Middlemarch, and The Man Who Loved Children, and…so on. So, just because no long books by women are on my current to-read pile (which is part of a larger to-read pile that fills an entire bookcase in my TV room), still, they exist. Women write long books, too.
I am open to observations, corrections, ruminations, and ideas. Who knows, maybe I can add more titles of daunting length to the stacks of books I haven’t read yet, but will someday, absolutely, for sure, at that mythical point in the future when I have unlimited reading time. Perhaps in the afterlife.