Tyler Cowen asks What’s wrong with long books? over at Marginal Revolution. He’s talking about the propensity people have for choosing shorter books over longer books, as exemplified by the line “I am guilty of never having read Anna Karenina, because it’s just so long. I’d much rather read two 300-page books than one 600-page book.” Those are the words of Louise Weir, director of the online bookclub Lovereading, who applauds the efforts of Orion Books to abridge the classics for the hoi polloi. She doesn’t sound much like a lover of reading, to me.
I’m frankly appalled at the idea of cutting out 40% of the classics. I cannot agree more with London independent bookseller Matthew Crockatt, who said “How can you edit the classics? I’m afraid reading some of these books is hard work, which is why you have to develop as a reader. If people don’t have time to read Anna Karenina, then fine. But don’t read a shortened version and kid yourself it’s the real thing,” as quoted at the source piece about Orion’s Compact Editions from which Tyler Cowen jumped off with his question.
That article, by the way, is worth reading if for no other reason than the “Very compact” abridgments of classic novels at the end.
So, now we’re informed that I’m appalled by the notion of dismembering the classics — even those that are, frankly, poorly written. Seriously, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a mediocre book only really worthwhile because of its influence on literature as a historical landmark, and Upton Sinclair‘s The Jungle is just plain awful, but neither would gain any value from having large sections cut out of them. Good, bad, or indifferent, all the classics are valuable in their entirety in part because of the historical record of their author’s voices. I fear the day I find myself embroiled in an hour-long discussion of the finer points of Atlas Shrugged, which I read once with close attention to every word from end to end and again much the same, other than skimming a bit on John Galt’s speech, only to discover that the version the other guy read was 240 pages long.
Could you imagine doing that to Emerson? Seriously, from the Emerson I’ve read, the complete value of Emerson’s writing would be erased entirely. Considering that Emerson’s real talent was not in writing complete works, but instead in stringing together a lengthy collection of related epigrams of surpassing quality, cutting out a single word would impoverish the reader quite a lot.
Of course, I must admit that there are times I, too, am inclined to pass up a long book in favor of a short book. I recently picked up a copy of George Orwell‘s Animal Farm for a reread after many years since the last time I read it, rather than another book beside it that was a guesstimated four times its length. The briefness of the book was a nontrivial part of the reason for my choice. Thinking it over, though, there’s a simple reason for this in my case that might not be obvious to everyone:
As I age and read more, I find that there’s far too much to read in the world to waste my time on something that isn’t good.
Tyler Cowen’s posited reasons that people might avoid long books go something like this (paraphrased):
- People like manageable, easily portable blocks of text in bite-sized chunks, not unwieldy, weighty tomes. “Detachable books” are the wave of the future, whether hardcopy like Stephen King’s Green Mile or electronic like a weblog.
- People like the satisfaction of finishing a book, not the journey of reading it.
- People like the rush and novelty of starting a book, not the journey of reading it.
In my case, at least, none of the above apply. I don’t like starting books — I usually find it difficult to get into a book, to some degree. It can take anywhere from half a chapter to half a book to get absorbed enough in it to actually enjoy the thing. In fact, one of the best books I’ve read, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, took me almost half the book to get absorbed by the tale, but then I was completely hooked. Completing the book wasn’t what interested me, per se, either — in fact, when I finished the last page, I was sad to see it end. Detachable books, as Tyler Cowen put it, might be an excellent idea — but I think that sort of thing would break my stride and possibly even ruin interest in a book that might otherwise captivate me from beginning (or the point where it first grabbed me, anyway) to end.
I like really reading the things. The reason I find myself reluctant to read a complete, long book is simply that I’ve picked up too many books, started reading, and found them almost entirely unreadable. I finished The Jungle, reading every last excruciatingly bad passage of it, ignoring the piss-poor characterization, trite conflict resolutions, ploddingly obvious plot progression, and clumsy attempts to trick the reader into agreeing with the underlying political ideologies the book was meant to espouse, despite the fact that I had long since come to a conscious decision that I wouldn’t waste my time finishing a book that simply sucked just to finish it. I didn’t finish that asinine slow-motion train wreck because I had started it and couldn’t bear to put the book down (a problem from which I had previously suffered, before encountering the terrible example of literary travesty that was John Gunther’s Death Be Not Proud and learned to put down a book that was just that bad). No, my reason for finishing it was that I wanted to know exactly what I was talking about when I later told everyone exactly how bad it was and tore it apart point by point. I wanted no possibility, once I knew how simply odious the thing was, for anyone to tell me it gets better later or I missed something important at the end, without knowing the truth of the matter for myself.
Aside from extreme examples like The Jungle, my reason for sometimes feeling reluctant to start a long book is simply this: I don’t want to make an investment of time that turns out to have been a tremendous mistake. Why waste time reading a book that I’m not sure, until I reach the end, isn’t worth finishing when I could be reading something else with more value? Shorter books are less of an investment, and thus less of a loss. I at least — and maybe people in general — sometimes avoid longer books because of something akin to a habit of conservative betting.
I will definitely avoid an abridged version if I decide to read a classic, though. I’m looking for something that makes me think, and catches me up in the excellent turn of phrase of one of the literary greats, when I pick up a classic. I’m not just looking to add another point to my literary superiority score card.