The Lure of Long Books

When I was little and just learning how to read, I recall looking at the 10 page book that I had to tackle with dismay. It would take me forever! to get through that book. It was a slow, painstaking process, and by the time I made it through, I often felt discouraged. I remember my mother encouraging me by telling me that through books, you go could anywhere and do anything. That helped, and eventually with time and practice (lots of practice!) I got better at reading, to the point where I found it to be a delightful activity.

Yesterday, for the first time in a while, I walked to the local Barnes & Noble for the sole purpose of browsing. I didn’t plan to buy any book (nor do I). I just wanted to wander the shelves and peek at things. While browsing, I noticed an interesting phenomenon that I’d never really been aware of before. I paused more in front of long books than short ones. And I realized a truism for me that I’d never thought about before: I am attracted to long books.

What is a long book? It is different for everyone, but for the sake simplicity, for me, let’s call a long book anything longer than 800 pages.

Over and over again, I found myself pausing in places where thick paperbacks sat on the shelf. I’d pick them up and flip through them, wondering, what makes the book so interesting that I’d be willing to spend so much time with it? Or put another way: what story takes 800 pages to tell?

I don’t know why I like long books so much. I suspect it has to do with not wanting a good story to end. When I am reading a particularly good book, I find myself constantly checking to see how much of the book remains, and as the pages dwindle, I grow sad that the book will soon be over. The longer the book, therefore, the longer it lasts.

I suppose I think of books like vacations. Short books are like weekend getaways. Your average 300 or 400 pager might be like heading off for a week’s vacation. But the long books–those are the big vacations: 2 or 3 weeks away, no cares in the world. You never want the vacation to end.

Looking through the list of books I’ve read over the last 20 years, I see plenty of long books. But there are, perhaps, 6 look books that, as I read them, I didn’t want them to end. In the order that I read them they are:

  1. The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes
  2. Shogun by James Clavell
  3. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows
  4. It by Stephen King
  5. 11/22/63 by Stephen King
  6. Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Long books have been much on my mind lately because I recently finished reading James A. Michener’s memoir The World Is My Home, and having done so, have been interested in reading some of his novels. He is famous for monstrously long novels, like Hawaii, and Texas. Indeed, in casting my memory back in time, I can recall browsing bookstores, and lingering over his books because they were so big.

I have read other big books. I’ve read all of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books for instance, and enjoyed them, but not with quite the same passion that I enjoyed the six  books listed above. I can’t say why exactly. I’ve read many of Will Durant’s histories, and enjoyed those as well, but again, not with the same pleasure as the 6 books above. Whether the long book is fiction or nonfiction hardly matters. I think what makes for the right recipe is that the book sweeps me away, totally and completely. The book becomes that vacation from the rest of the world, a vacation that I simply don’t want to end.

Before I start reading a long book, I experience that same sense of anticipation I get before going on vacation. The mountain of pages (whether they are physical or digital) hold all of the hope and excitement of a vacation. It is a form of potential energy, and I often think to myself, “I’ve got this whole book in front of me.”

Perhaps that is why, when I finish a particularly good long book, it is so difficult to figure out what to read next.  I have immersed myself in someone else’s head for so long that I need some time to recover and gain my senses before I can actually settle on another book that I will enjoy.

Whatever the reason, there is a lure to long books. I am drawn to it like a siren’s song, and once I’m in its grasp, I am its prisoner for as long as it will hold me.

3 thoughts on “The Lure of Long Books

  1. Having read two of your ‘long books’, I can’t resist but add a few of my own:
    1. Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra
    2. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
    3. Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
    4. Otherland by Tad Williams

  2. Matt, I got about 90% of the way through CRYPTONOMICON, and then stopped, for reasons I can no longer remember. I enjoyed the book, especially the geekery involved in it. What other book has a perl script in it! But it didn’t generate the same kind of “other places/other times” that I got from the books on my list. I’ll have to check out #1 and 4 on your list. I’ve always had trouble with China Mieville–he writes above my head. There are several writers with whom I have had this problem. (Actually, Stephenson is one of them).

  3. I understand what you mean by Stephenson. I couldn’t handle the Quicksilver series despite some sections being astoundingly brilliant, partly because so much of it seemed irrelevant to the story and, frankly, rather boring. I’d love to know how you get on with #1 and #4 on my list, although I should mention that Sacred Games is not science fiction, although it does share much with the best of SF for being set in modern Mumbai.

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