Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash is one of my all-time favorite books. Published during the infancy of the Internet, this cyber-punk epic follows the adventures of Hiro Protagonist, a pizza delivery guy for the Cosa Nostra who also happens to be the greatest sword fighter on earth. When a deadly computer virus threatens the virtual reality world known as the metaverse, Hiro is called to duty. The result is a sci-fi thriller full of action, mystery, and razor sharp satire. Snow Crash is hip, funny, and a whole lot of fun. It’s also about 440 pages long.
Stephenson’s most recent offering, The System of the World: the Baroque Cycle, Vol. 3 is 928 pages. I will NEVER read The System of the World.
And I doubt I’ll read Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which sits on my shelf taunting me. It’s 1168 pages long.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not Stephenson who I’m avoiding–he’s an incredibly bright guy and a fine storyteller. It’s all those damn pages.
My resistance to bulky books was once a source of secret shame. I felt people would judge me for it, telling me that I had a short attention span, calling me a victim of MTV. After all, thick books are signs of intelligence, right? They say to the public, "I’d rather be reading than anything else in the world."
Since that time, I’ve come to my senses, weighed my options, and did the math. Sure I could read Cryptonomicon (1168 pages remember). But instead, in that same amount of time, I could also read…
James Sallis’ Drive (only 158 pages)
Duane Swierczynski’s The Blonde (226 pages)
Ken Bruen’s Magdalen Martyrs (a quick 274 pages)
Victor Gischler’s Gun Monkeys (284 pages)
Max Phillips’ Fade to Blonde (220 pages)
I know what you’re thinking. And you’re right, it is a damn analytical way to look at the joy of reading. After all, books shouldn’t be about numbers. Books should be about the experience, about losing yourself in the pages, not about math. But as a writer, how do I trade the chance to hear five distinct voices, to delve into five unique styles, for only one?
Of course, in the end it’s a matter of personal preference. And I admit that some stories simply call for thick books. In his last post, Mr. Guyot mentioned Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (960 pages). I’ve not read L.D. (that’s what the kids call it today, much like the O.C.), but I did read the shorter Streets of Laredo, which was a hefty 560 pages but read like it was 300. It was a big story with tons of characters, and it warranted a big book. So McMurty gets a pass. That’s right; MacLean is giving a pass to one of America’s greatest writers. I’m sure he’ll sleep easy now.
But I wonder if many of the big books out there deserve the same weight. How many of these six, seven, eight hundred page bibles could’ve run a bit leaner, and been better for it? And why is it some blockbuster novelists start out lean early in their careers and get thicker and thicker as they make bigger names for themselves? Do they have more editorial control and push editors off to the side?
But wait, there’s more….
Do readers feel they get more for their money when they purchase a thick book? If that’s the case, do publishers push for more pages from their novelists?
Inquiring newbies want to know.
Personally, I’ve never read a book over 400 pages and said, "I wish it was just ten chapters longer." My favorite novels were the ones I didn’t want to end, the ones that satisfied me but didn’t leave me bloated.
SNOW CRASH is an awesome book. Wow, I haven’t thought of it in a long time. I might have to find it and do a reread.
For me, pages don’t matter. But if I had to choose, I might say I’m the opposite of you. Give me a great whack of a novel instead of a quick adrenaline-only tale.
Perhaps it’s coming from the Hollywood world where “Shorter is better” is hammered into your head every second. Cut, cut, cut. Don’t give us anything but the guts of the story, and even trim that.
Now, I’m a fan of Hard Case Crime, and Swizzle’s THE BLONDE, and Gischler’s romp, but it’s like reading screenplays for me – something that’s quick, fun, and then I’m back to whatever I was doing.
But a novel (a GOOD novel, not even an okay one, but a GOOD one) that draws me in, introduces me to a world and its characters slowly, like peeling an onion, I love that. I freaking love it. A place I can lose myself in for long stretches of time.
It’s like I’m in the movie, as opposed to watching the movie.
Or… if I can be so, uh, twisted. Short, quick books are like sex with a stranger – quick, dirty, up against the restroom stall door, and then you’re both gone forever, whereas long, great unfolding novels are like meeting someone, talking, having dinner, then drinks, then back to a room at the Ritz for long, passionate, intense, (even hardcore if you like) lovemaking. Both events end with the same results, but it’s the journey that you remember.
Again, though, this is all true ONLY if the book (short or long) is a good story.
If I’m sucked into the story, and the writing, and the characters, 900 pages can seem like 400; 220 pages can seem like 30. And the opposite is true.
It’s funny, every time I see the page count of LONESOME DOVE, I always go to the book and check (I did it after reading your post)… because to this day, I can’t believe that book is more than about 450 pages.
What he said.
Seriously, I used to go for the biggest, thickest books I could buy because I figured I’d be getting a better deal for my money. Of course, I bought 100’s when I smoked because they were bigger for the same price, so what do I know?
Now I want to read the best story possible. If it’s 100 pages too long, which is frequently see, I get frustrated, because an economy of words would have sufficed and made the story stronger. Longer doesn’t necessarily equal better. Look at what Sallis did with DRIVE. Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am, and nothing was missing.
At the same time, people like Rowling, or Gabaldon, could write 40,000 page tomes and I’d lug them around, eager for each word I could get.
So it just plain depends.
I was thinking the same about the Harry Potter and the Outlander series books – plus Gabaldon’s pages look so dense with words – but man, they’re so good!
I’m sitting here looking at a nice stack of books awaiting my reading pleasure, and feeling pretty happy with my book pile right now – one of my gifts was an Amazon gift certificate and I devoted it entirely to writers either posting or commenting here on Murderati. 🙂
Great sex analogy, Paul. I knew one of the Rati would eventually get a sex reference in there.
And I agree, a thick book can feel like a thin one if it sucks you in and puts you into the story. Ultimately, it is those hefty novels that I find most satisfying.
But as J.T. pointed out, if a book is 100 pages too long (which I’ve seen more than a few times) it can frustrating. I’m not against big books. I’m against big books that would’ve been better had they been more economical. I guess one could make a similar argument about shorter novels—if it feels like it’s missing something (characterization is usually the most common victim) maybe the page count should’ve been higher.
BTW—if you want to hear more about Snow Crash, check out my friends at the Sci-fi scoundrels. http://scifiscoundrels.com/index.php?s=snow+crash
Thanks so much for the support. It means a lot.
Oh, and Mike…
What about the ageless one, RANDY COUTURE!!!
Worth every cent of my $40.
Love the “sex with a stranger” analogy, Guyot. I guess that means that this week I’m into multiple occasions of restroom stall sex.
There’s Thomas Pynchon’s AGAINST THE DAY sitting up there on my shelf in all its 1085 paged glory. I winked and walked on by.
Picked up Colin Cotterill’s DISCO FOR THE DEPARTED, a lean 256-page fantasy screw.
Then I ran into James Sallis’ CRIPPLE CREEK on the way out of the bathroom. Two hundred and eight pages later, I was feeling well and truly screwed.
I ended the night with Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD. A bleak 256 pages if I’ve ever seen it.
And I still have another 365 pages to get my joie de vivre back, before I could have finished the Pynchon book.
I guess it all depends on my mood. But this week, I’m with you, Mike. Less is more.
Ewwwwwww! Sex in a public bathroom? Yuck. Now, on a kitchen counter . . . well, that is an entirely different matter.
I read for story. I like my fantasy epics long and juicy — either in the form of a series or in hefty books. I like my mysteries shorter.
My older daughter who is still young — picks books almost exclusively by size; the bigger, the better. She’s the only person I know who has actually read THE BOOK OF VIRTUES. (Talk about pomposity and an author)
The Harry Potter books have gotten longer, but they’re also becoming better written. Same with the Redwall series.
As you can tell, I spend a lot of time reading YA.
Thanks for a wonderful post, Mike. You’re such a great addition to this blog!
I’m from the Gold Medal era, so I figure 160 pages (or even 144) is the ideal length for a book. My theory is that all this longer-is-better business started in the mystery/thriller field with Dick Francis, a guy who kept nudging the best-seller list but didn’t get on until he produced his first doorstop book. I’ve read all his books, short and long, and I’ve liked them very much, but if I had to pick one to read again, I’d go for a short one.
This site is doing its job, Mike — it’s entertaining, interactive, welcoming, and has grown my to be read pile quite a bit higher!
Louise, LOL — your comment made me want to go buy the titles you named that I don’t already have… 🙂
Pari, if you have suggestions for a 9 (10 in April) girl, I’d welcome them – she reads voraciously and loves fantasy/adventure as well as anything animal related.
I’m half thinking about a quick drive to my closest indie bookstore to pick up a few more books.
Way to take the Sex ball and roll with it. Hmmm…that didn’t sound right. I hear THE ROAD is amazing. Just one more to add to the list. I’m going to die with stacks and stacks of unread books around me.
Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad to be here. You make a good point about the Harry Potter books, which my wife loves. While her favorite is the third, she isn’t bothered by the doorstop quality of any of them. My question: Is there an editor alive who would tell JKR to shorten her manuscripts?
I wonder if that’s what happens to the bestsellers. They know they have a built-in audience and we give them the benefit of the doubt, so they can pack on more and more pages. In an interview years ago Anne Rice said she didn’t let companies edit her work because, “You wouldn’t edit Hemmingway, would you?” I’ll let you decide how to take that comment.
Thanks for the historical insight there. If you can trace many of today’s happy-ending formula movies to Rocky or Star Wars, maybe the big book phenomena goes back to DF (at least in the mystery world).
Yeah, I heard about RANDY COUTURE. For those of you uninitiated to the UFC. The guy is 43 years old and beat down the super heavy weight champ who was 12 years younger, six-inches taller, and 40 pounds heavier. I wish I could’ve seen it.
Well, I LOVE BIG BOOKS.
As for likening book books to sex…well, darlings, I could write a book. But let me just say that size vs quality is…well, all in the eye of the beholder.
Billie,Has she read the Redwall series? If she’s a strong reader, it shouldn’t be too advanced. There are about 10 books in the series and we’ve read about five and love them. They take place in an abbey populated by mice, badgers, hedgehogs etc. No humans in the mix at all.
My daughter hasn’t read Artemis Foul, but many other people I know enjoy this series quite a bit.
Also, a dear friend has recommended Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke; we’ll start that soon.
Of course, there’s always Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.
And, if she’s really an advanced reader: The Golden Compass series by Philip Pullman is wonderful — though I think the themes are fairly mature.
Another series that is more science-fictiony is the Mars Diaries.
I’m sure there are others, but that’s what I came up with off the top of my head.
Everything but the Philip Pullman and the Mars Diaries she has read… but those are good ideas and I’ll see if I can get her the first in each to try. I’ve relied on Chinaberry for years but eventually she caught up and sometimes it feels like there just aren’t any more series she can launch into!
She is so NOT into the “girly” stuff.
The really hard thing is how fast she reads. I can get a stack and she will read straight through them, one a day or less than a day. I did the same thing but would stay up all night as well. She’s more sensible than I was and will go to bed but has the book waiting for the moment she awakens.
Thanks – I did not make it to the bookstore and now it’s a good thing – I can add to the list and go tomorrow. 🙂
I like short books. If a book is 500 pages long I will almost always skip 100 pages of it somewhere – usually the third quarter. For me, most popular fiction is 100 pages too long.
This is undoubtedly because I’ve written movies. But some of it is fat – fat books.
But with a LONESOME DOVE or POISONWOOD BIBLE? I read every word. And I go back a million times.
I must admit I prefer shorter books to longer because of my dyslexia and I know some people put weight (no pun) on the longer the book, the better it is. You list fade to Blonde and that was a great book. Such a perfect ending. 250-300 page books work best for me. I think when you get to the 900 page tree killers, the story has to be complex enough to keep my interest.
So, size may or may not matter? Eye of the beholder? Kitchen-counter sex? (How am I gonna get a babe into the men’s room, or–nevermind?)
Ilike ’em big: Alan Folsom, Melville, Dickens, Clancy; and I like’em small–Hawthorne (the Custom House ‘essay’ was just to beef up the size, to satisfy the publisher), Crider, Ure.
Are small books in a series really big books broken down?
Good , provocative post–almost thought Louise instigated this.