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.