by J.D. Rhoades

The other day, I was having an e-mail conversation with a friend. As we often do,  we got to talking about books.  She was deep into Hilary Mantel’s 2006 book, A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY. “It’s a commitment,” she said, alluding to the book’s 768-page length, “but you don’t care.”

Which got me to thinking. I’ve noticed recently that I have a much shorter attention span than I used to when it comes to books. I think twice before taking on a massive work, and will often pass it over in favor of something shorter. It took me forever, for example, to “commit” to Neal Stephenson’s CRYPTONOMICON, even though I loved it when I finally did read it. And the third volume of his Baroque Cycle  is sitting on the bookshelf, waiting for me to get up the gumption to take it on. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see it as a chore. I LOVE Neal Stephenson. I just get to about Page 300 of any book, see a few hundred pages to go,  and start feeling antsy. I feel the pressure of the TBR pile building up in the back of my head. And this is from someone who used to regularly sit down and devour the entire LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy every couple of years, and then finish off with a dessert of THE SILMARILLION.


It seems I’m not alone. In a recent article I read on Slate, writer Nicholas Carr notes:

Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

And the culprit, for Mr. Carr, is easy to find: that bad old Internet. The article, in fact, is titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and Carr  suggests that spending a lot of time on the Web is trashing our attention spans:

[W]hat the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

After all, the ‘net is the home of the acronym used to dismiss an overly verbose or lengthy article, comment, or blog post: “TL; DR”.


Which stands, in case you didn’t know,  for “Too Long; Didn’t Read.”

On the other hand, this article suggests that that worry is not only overblown, but cliched:

Worries about information overload are as old as information itself, with each generation reimagining the dangerous impacts of technology on mind and brain. From a historical perspective, what strikes home is not the evolution of these social concerns, but their similarity from one century to the next, to the point where they arrive anew with little having changed except the label…Socrates famously warned against writing because it would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories.

So, maybe it’s not the tech. Maybe it’s the stuff I’ve gotten used to reading. For the past few years, my reading has skewed towards noir, pulp, and hardboiled. That’s the stuff I like, and it tends to be short, simple, and fast-moving. Not coincidentally, that’s how I like to write as well. So it takes some adjustment to settle down into something more long and discursive, something that takes its time getting to where it’s going.

Or maybe it’s just life in general. With a family, a day job, four pets, and an incurable writing habit, I’ve gotten used to a faster, more breakneck (almost literally) pace.

How about you? Are you finding it harder or more daunting to tackle long works? If so, why do you think it is? Any ideas for overcoming it?

27 thoughts on “TL;DR

  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    I recently read Elizabeth George’s newest which is over 700 pages. I had the same problem. It seemed like it took forever to read. I’ve gotten busier somehow in my life and don’t have the big chunks of time to devote to reading which is a bother in itself. But taking so long with the George, I felt the other books that I really wanted to get to calling me, pulling at me and I just wanted to be done and move on. And I’m not even having a goal this year of number of books read so there should be no pressure to rush anything. I love honkin’ big books but I guess my current way of living isn’t conducive to reading them right now.

  2. Shizuka

    I tend to skip very long books. It’s a function of time, but also experience.
    Almost everything I’ve read that’s longer than 500 pages felt bloated and draggy.
    I never made it through any of Tolkein’s books, for example.
    They make me want to get a red pen and cross out like mad!
    Maybe I’m just too impatient.

    But I did read the Stand more than once.

  3. Rebbie Macintyre

    I try to have one long book, usually a classic, going on while I read shorter books. Right now, I’m re-reading MOBY DICK. It will take me absolute months to finish! That’s okay, though, because when I finish it, I’ll love the feeling of accomplishment! Imho, our culture is simply not structured for the long hours of contemplation, reading and conversation as it was in the past, so a lot of us see reading long books as a chore. One afternoon not too long ago I called my mother and, as usual, the conversation came around to what we were reading. I asked her, now that she’s in her 80’s, if she finally has the time to indulge in the long tomes she’s always wanted to read. "I have to get off the phone now, Rebbie," she said. "I have cocktails and bridge tonight."
    So much for leisurely reading.

  4. Ed Marrow

    I couldn’t agree more. I read a lot of fantasy. The epics are all 800 page monsters, in 7 book series. Sometimes I wish they would just- ooh something shiny!

  5. Brett Battles

    Funny you should post about this, Dusty. I’ve been feeling the same way for a while now. With the exception of Stephen King’s long ones, I seldom pick up anything that is longer than 400 pages…most are closer to 300. I think you might be on to something about getting use to what we are reading a lot of length-wise.

  6. judy wirzberger

    I read shorter books and then loathe hitting the last page when I love the characters. George, for me, is always an easy read. However, I do have a tendency to read n ewly published books my favorite authors and they seem to be economically short. What I do find is that I seldom have long sitting periods . gult over endless unfinished chores pulls me away. My world is much too busy with mundane tasks.

  7. Robert Gregory Browne

    I confess I’ve never been one for long books. I was raised on the lean, mean Gold Medal thrillers of the sixties and early seventies, like the Parker books, which are maybe 40,000 words each. I’ve read a lot of King’s books, but have always shied away from the longer ones.

    When the uncut version of The Stand came out years ago, I bought it, then just stared at it every now and again, picked it up a few times, but never have gotten around to reading it. It just seems like too much of a time suck. And I LOVE Stephen King.

    But then nowadays, thanks to sleep problems, I pass out only seconds after I start reading. So audio books are now my friend. And when it’s on audio it somehow doesn’t seem as long.

  8. Stacy McKitrick

    I read for entertainment. If the book is over 500 pages, I don’t care as long as I’m enjoying it. Sure, I have a huge pile of books to read, but I don’t let that pile deter me. I’ll eventually get to them (it will just take me awhile).

    I don’t let the size of the book determine whether or not I want to read it. I let the subject matter make that decision.

  9. Larry Gasper

    The problem I’ve ran into with long books is that I’ve read too many lately that run to seven or eight hundred pages and they should be five hundred at most. These have mostly been science fiction novels and I don’t notice the bloat as much in crime books, which is why I’m more likely to pick up a three or four hundred page mystery than an eight hundred page space opera. If there’s only three hundred pages of story, why not just read the three hundred pages without the filler?

  10. Bill Crider

    I have the problem, all right. I used to read Dickens for fun. Bleak House, David Copperfield. Loved ’em. I don’t think I’d tackle them now. I like Gold Medal-style books, sort and fast.

  11. Alafair Burke

    Just as with long movies, long books are a larger investment of my time, so they better warrant the extra length. I also find that my reading experience has been tainted since I’ve begun writing. My editor is so quick to call me out for unnecessary scenes that I get annoyed (jealous?) when other writers go on and on and on without advancing the plot.

  12. Dawn

    I just last night finished Stieg Larrson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which is 835 pages. I admit, it took months before I considered moving it to the front of the TBR pile because its size intimidated me. But although it was sometimes a difficult read, I enjoyed the book. That being said, I will not be jumping to the next book in the series…yet. I need a bit of a breather and so this morning deliberately selected a smaller book – I can only train my attention span for short spurts 🙂

  13. Mark Terry

    I haven’t decided if it’s a function of the internet, an impatience with books that sometimes seem padded, or I’m just getting older (okay, 46, is that old?). But I have some problems with longer books now. Granted, I tend to read 2 simultaneously, one fiction, one non-fiction, and maybe that’s part of the issue. And the nonfiction one is McCollough’s biography of John Adams, which is about 600 pages long with tiny little font and tight pages–I mean really, this sucker must be 250,000 words. It’s fascinating, but I can rarely read more than a couple pages at a time. I recently read The English Assassin by Daniel Silva, and although I’d recommend Silva’s books in a heartbeat, I bet I could have chipped off 10,000 words without it hurting the story much. Not to say that he’s padded, just that I like leaner books.

  14. Jake Nantz

    Dusty, I normally enjoy reading your posts, but I’m afraid that one just looked too daunting. Can you give me, like, a Sparknotes version of it? Sorry man, there was just no way I was reading that.


  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Like my twin brother Rob, I’ve never been much for the longer books. Over 400 is a lot, and I’ll only really do it for Ayn Rand, Stephen King, and Dan Simmons. Even Anne Rice I always skipped around. It wasn’t the Internet for me, just a personal preference for the rhythm of a tight book.

  16. Allison Davis

    Some books are long because they aren’t edited well, and I don’t get through those. But well edited and well written books, doesn’t matter how long…

    But sometimes my brain is too tired for a heavy book, or a longer book, so I pick up the shorter stuff, and like some others I am reading several books at once. Usually a fiction, a non fiction, a how to, and to alleviate stress, I dive into something completely silly, one of my many Nancy Drew books. Most of my reading is done on airplanes, so I am happy to read however it unfolds.

  17. JD Rhoades

    I notice a couple of folks who like to read more than one book at a time, which I used to do a lot, but don’t so much any more. Maybe I’ll try that when I get done with my current read and tackle CRIME AND PUNISHMENT again.

    Alafair, I know exactly the feeling of jealousy that you talk about, that feeling of "hey, how come he gets away with all these words?"

    Rob, I cut my teeth on the shorter stuff as well: Maigret, Nero Wolfe, etc. Maybe I’m having an early second childhood. God knows I never got out of my first adolescence.

  18. kit

    hey Dusty,
    first off, i’m a self -professed literary slut puppy, which means I pretty much like to read anything, even though i do have favorites.
    In my case,I guess it made a real difference what was going on in my life, whether to read a short book or a longer book that made me *think* or something I need to concentrate to keep the thread fresh.
    I was putting it down to advancing years, when I started having memory and concentration problems, I did list this as a problem when I was seeing a specialist for migraines, the doc asked me what I did, and about my family life, she then preceeded to tell me…it wasn’t advancing years so much as how little time I spent on each and every thing before moving on to the next thing.
    Around the same time, I had an appointment with my regualr doctor and told him I was having feelings of *deja vu*…to which he replied.."of course you are." which really surprised me, until he explained further…"you are a planner, so if you are experiencing feelings of *having been there, done that*….you quite possibly have".
    Both gave similar advice…"simplify, slow down…take time to live in the NOW…enjoy what you are doing at the time without feeling the need to rush, rush, and hurriedly move on to the next thing.Cut down all the activities, you arent’ doing anyone any favors by packing so many things in the shortest amount of time"

    This may not make a difference to anyone else, but it sure did for me.

  19. JT Ellison

    So what you’re saying, Dusty, is that size really does matter???

    I couldn’t resist.

    I love me a long book. Especially when it’s someone I know can deliver the goods. The only BIG one I’ve been putting off is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which I bought the day it released and have never gotten the courage to dive into. If anyone’s read it, should I?

  20. Cornelia Read

    Dusty, I’ve had kind of a rough year, generally, and I found myself hard-put to read much of anything, except a pile of things I’d agreed to be a judge for. Well, and Stieg Larson. Salander is a good companion when you wish something would kick life’s ass for you.

    I spent a whole lot of time watching "good" television, mostly on my computer.

    I’m just getting back to reading again, and it’s great to be back with the printed page, but it was nice to have that break when life just felt too heavy to bear.

  21. Jeanne in MN

    When I have reading time, I tend to visit instead of diving into the TBR stack. Then I click on Amazon’s happy feature "Search Inside This Book." I can tell immediately whether I want to read that book or not. The problem comes when I buy them…then they go into the TBR pile, while I am busily searching for even more books to discover. This seems to be a self-defeating strategy.

  22. Nancy Laughlin

    I have that problem too. I have several really long books a friend bought me for Christmas. I’ve yet to start them because they are huge, but I must soon. She’s asked, and I know I hurt her feelings when I said I hadn’t read even one.
    I have so little time to read. It’s often a choice between my reading time and my writing time, one or the other. Because of that, I often opt for a short, fast read.

  23. Spencer Seidel

    I’ve read terrible 50,000-word books and terrible 400,000-word books. For me, a good long book is just that: a good book! For me, it all depends on the writing. If I dig it, I’m all in for the duration.

  24. pari noskin taichert

    I’m more than happy to take on a long, long book, but it’s got to hold my interest, be a good yarn, for me to finish it. Of course, the same is true for short pieces of fiction too.

  25. Hahn21Dale

    Some time ago, I did need to buy a building for my corporation but I didn’t have enough cash and couldn’t order something. Thank heaven my mother suggested to try to get the mortgage loans at reliable creditors. So, I acted that and was satisfied with my collateral loan.


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