May 24, 2012

Books are just too darned long, says critic


In a sprawling, two-page article Daily Beast critic Mark Wortman laments the recent glut in extremely long books. In this epically long blog post titled “Are books becoming too long to read?”, Wortman points to a series of culpably grandiose books that include the likes of Walter Isaacson’s pop biography Steve Jobs, Manning Marable’s Malcolm X and Daniel Yergin’s The Quest.

Here is a more complete list from Wortman’s post about this invasion of giant books, not to mention a precise calculation of their sweeping immensities:

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.

Of all the nearly insurmountable obstacles that confront modern man, this big book business must be the worst. It is certainly the most insidious. It is after all a creation of the publisher class, who for some reason have become infatuated by page counts. Wortman writes:

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.

Could this possibly be true? Readers are looking for nonfiction that reminds them of James Cameron’s Avatar? There is a good portion of Wortman’s article that laments the loss of the idea within the “big” nonfiction book. Wortman points to books like Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (he mentions the abridged edition) as an example of a great big book with big ideas contained within. Strange choice for a man lamenting size. The full version of Gibbon’s book is a multi-volume affair that uses thousands of pages to catalog the fall of Rome.

It’s somewhat strangely appropriate that we find this article coming out around the same time as an Associated Press story about another glut in publishing. This one a positively rendered trend in books about the economy and the people’s movement of Occupy. In that article our very own Debt: The First 5,000 Years figures prominently. An anthropological history of the most important political subject facing the developed world, and which weighs in at just under 600 pages. We’ve sold around 60,000 copies of David Graeber’s Debt, which is a remarkably positive thing. 60,000 people are willing to sit down with a timely and important work.

Even if we take at face value Wortman’s unsupported observations about authorial ego and a desire by publishers for more pages (akin to Christopher Walken’s famous fever for “more cowbells“) we are still left with a bad taste concerning the conclusions. If readers are in fact now craving, or even able, to support an economy of big books does this not then leave open an opportunity for truly important works of size? Yes, is the answer. And thus “no” is the answer to Mr. Wortman’s query.

Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.