One of the legendary sayings of C.S. Lewis is that he has never encountered a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit him. His brevity in writing is well known, yet his true love was to sit and work through long books on rainy days or in dusty libraries or when he was ill.
I wish I had his attention span and ability to struggle with big books. Unless they have absolutely taken me up, I tend to get lost in them in the first half. For me, though, the 2nd half of any good book is always shorter than the first as I sweep through to the ending.
I had secretly wanted to make 2016 a “Year of Long Books,” which is kind of silly. If there ever was an artificial benchmark, that would be it. Yet the length of books tells us a lot about reading culture. I am stuck in the middle of John Calvin’s 700,000 word Institutes of the Christian Religion—light reading for people with my training in any other age. I am a reader of less literary stamina than the great grand-patriarchs of the past.
In 2016 I did read some long books. The Bible has about ¾ million words, but many of those are very short. I finished C.S. Lewis’ Collected Letters, about 4000 pages total with the last book being almost half of that. I do love letters, though. I am reading Tolkien’s letters (about 210,000 words), and I hope someday to work through Dorothy Sayers’ 5-volume Letters (just shy of 2000 pages).
While they have written many letters, both Lewis and Sayers were very economical with words. The Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord Peter Wimsey stories are filled with tight, disciplined books. C.S. Lewis’s only long book is his Oxford History of English Literature’s English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama, which is about ¼ of million words long and took nearly ¼ of a century to write. With a title like that, we would be disappointed if the book wasn’t big. OHEL—as Lewis called it—is as long as either Narnia or the Ransom Cycle or a collection of his other literary critical books.
In 2016 I read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. At 1000 pages, 548,067 words, it is a brilliant, sprawling non-epic that remains one of the longer contemporary American novels (though I only skimmed the 100,000 words of footnotes). While Wallace’s strange book is hefty, in terms of sheer weight Stephen King is tree-killing royalty. I’ve read a dozen or so of Stephen King’s books that run double or triple a normal paperback thriller. His great work is IT, which clocks in at 444,414 words, and I am tempted to return to it this winter. We’ll see. Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind is tempting me (with its 662 pages).
One of my shameful confessions is that I have read most of the Tom Clancy Jack Ryan books (7 of 9), in order. I love the Jack Ryan character and am big on spy stories (though usually on film). The series begins at a weighty 160,000 words, but its full verbal obesity is shown in Executive Orders, which comes in at 462,282 words. I finished Executive Orders in 2015. Midway through I promised never to read another Tom Clancy book. As I closed the cover, I started watching for The Bear and the Dragon at yard sales (which is much shorter, at only 1137 pages). I actually use a razor blade to cut Clancy books in half so they are easier to hold.
I think the series got away on Clancy, but he is certainly not the only author to feel the weight of the world grow beneath his fingertips. The Harry Potter series clocks in at nearly a million words—The Order of the Phoenix being a quarter of that and itself as long as the Narnian heptalogy. Heptology? Hepatology? Truthfully, I wish it was longer, and would read another seven-pack that either prefigures Harry or comes after him (as long as it is imaginative, thorough, and dynamic). We’ll see how the movie series goes.
I want to spend my 2020s in the Tolkien legendarium. This lot continues to grow, but this unusually brilliant website suggests The Lord of the Rings is 481,103 words. The Hobbit and The Silmarillion are 95,356 and 130,115 words respectively. This fellow did not count the History of Middle Earth, but I would guess that they are 2.8-2.9m words—plus the fun supplementary work. A great way to spend a decade I think!
An author’s work or a series can make the word count add up. Although I could take an evening to count and be certain, I would guess that C.S. Lewis’ total published works are about 21,000 pages, or 5-6m words. At 40+ books, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is probably about 2 million words, and I am just over halfway through a chronological read. I would someday like to read the Wheel of Time cycle, begun by Robert Jordan and now over 4.3m words. One day I will have to succumb to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which is approaching 2m words. And I have been slowly collecting Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant at yard sales and thrift stores, which are just over 2m words. We’ll see if I ever get there.
SF and Fantasy are great for longish books and series. I would like to finish Gene Wolfe’s informally named Solar Cycle (I have read about 1/3 of 1.4m words). I would like one day to finish Frank Herbert’s Dune series (840,000 words total) or Stephen King’s Dark Tower saga (1.3m words). I have on my shelf 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, which most people tell me is 928 pages of awesome, but it is a stinking heavy book for a man with carpal tunnel syndrome.
Big books are certainly not a new trend, and I suspect that books are getting shorter, not longer.
Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, not as long as his Clarissa (984,870 words, and perhaps the longest English novel), still clocks in at 225,000 words. It felt about twice that long. Painful. It was necessary that I read it for my work in epistolary fiction, and I suspect that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a response to Clarissa. But, then, Jane Austen perhaps had more leisure to read long boring books than I have.
It is not all bad news, though. Charles Dickens’ Bleak House is over 1000 pages, so probably about 350,000 words. Honestly, I wish it was longer. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment—one of my favourite books ever—is 211,591 words. But it is his Russian brother who has earned the cold weather writer award. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is 587,287 words, and I keep putting it off even though I know it will be rewarding.
Each autumn I tend to pick up a longish book that fits in the past. Last year it was The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers by Margaret George (928 pages), and the year before was Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1248 pages—though poetry has far fewer words). I haven’t thought through to next year, so maybe it is time for Tolstoy.
Or Joyce. I haven’t read some of the weightier novels, like the American Gone With the Wind or James Joyce’s Ulysses. But we cannot expect that every long book is going to be rewarding. Because of its often unseen influence on American politics, I read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. There are some good moments in the book, and the story has a stickiness factor to—despite the anemic worldview it offers. But it is 561,996 words of sermonic drivel, “a point weak, speak loudly” pulpit-pounding, post-moral moralistic, didactic drudgery centred on an idea designed to collect human creativity and ingenuity into a plutocratic few. I will never, ever return to it.
Well, this was a post about nothing, really. To my credit, though, it was a lot of nothing. I like big books and I cannot lie. But I also admit that I can get bogged down in a larger text—either by the length of the book or the number of characters. A character map helps me with older books and fantasy worlds, while a razor blade helps lighten the muscle strain on the Clancy-Kings of the world. And then there is the refreshing break of picking up a beautifully written children’s book and taking it in by gulps.
So, what’s your preference? Do you like long books, or find them disheartening? Are you length-fluid, weighting all your choice on the story or character or world? As culture slims expectations, are you secretly rebelling by reaching for something older or longer? Tell me your story, but do make it short. There is reading to do.
Long novels have to really grab me, but once they do, I generally race through them–for example, I started reading Ken Follett’s Century trilogy last year. Fall of Giants is about 1000 words, which I flew through in a few days–the book is not beautifully written, by any means, but it’s incredibly engaging. Similarly, I absolutely loved Lonesome Dove (also about 1000 words, and on Kindle, which normally takes me much longer)–I don’t feel at all intimidated at the thought of reading it again. On the flipside, I’ve never finished War and Peace, because it’s so giant and disheartening and incredibly difficult to follow. Normally, I err on the side of preferring character development over plot, but maybe for long books I’m the other way around?
I do like big non-fiction tomes, but I am quite happy to read them over the course of a year or so. I’ve had a history of the Peasants’ Revolt on the go for about ten months and I don’t feel any pressure to get through it quickly, whereas if I were reading a novel for that long I’d get frustrated/bored sooner rather than later.
Are those 1000 pages? I actually don’t know any of those books, though I would like to read more of the on-the-ground history of major periods.
Get a yard sale copy of War & Peace and use a razor blade to divide it up. Call it “volumes” then you’ll feel great about it!
Ahh yes, 1000 pages, not 1000 words (which it would probably not take me months to read…)
Good idea about War and Peace–I will try it!
Length doesn’t draw or repel me, just the central topic. I have 3-4 big books on-tap for this year, a couple have been languishing on my shelf way too long, (Titan and Washington by Chernow, High Financier by Ferguson, and Young Stalin by Montefiore). I’m still firmly stuck in the non-fiction world, since, as the cute-ism goes, “truth is stranger than fiction.” We’ll never know all history’s stories and depending on the author they can be incredibly interesting. Longer books take longer for me to tackle, but once I’m ~ 1/3 in, I tend to buckle down and get it done. Books ought to take 30 days or less; longer than that and I’m losing the story.
And your post was NOT about “nothing;” numbers and benchmarks are important! 🙂
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Our reading doesn’t overlap a lot, Jared, but where it overlaps I am a big fan. There are so many great nonfiction stories out there.
I’m the same, but it is at 1/2 way through a long book where I start to zoom. I think I’ll go read now.
I am a stats nerd, which I think you know.
I believe that I tend to prefer shorter books. Maybe in the range of the Narnia volumes. However, when something is as well-written and compelling as the longer Harry Potter books, they don’t seem to be as long as they are. I believe I took 8 or 9 days reading Order of the Phoenix last year.
I, too, am in the midst of reading Calvin’s Institutes. I WILL finish it this year. 😉 Often it is so wonderfully devotional and a blessing to read. I’m in 3.XX now – the 70 page chapter on prayer! I didn’t read much in it last year, but as part of my intentional “read fewer books in 2017” goal, I plan on getting through it. Hopefully by mid-year.
I zoomed through the Harry Potter books too. But I am stuck on Calvin. Partly, I’m reading as an outsider: a Christian, but not a Calvinist. My issue was I had to intentionally focus because my mind was wandering. And the chapters are up to 2 or 3 hours of reading at a time!
Still, it’s important to finish. This spring, perhaps.
Yes, I plan to read a few less this year.
This reminds me of Lewis’ essay “On the Reading of Old Books.” I actually found Calvin a lot more understandable than most Calvinists. If you want to really slog through some obscure works, try the old Puritans. Some are just horrible writers, dry as dust, like John Owen. As far as the Puritans go, I’ll stick with Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
and if you find Calvin hard to follow, try Jonathan Edwards. I have his two-volume work and still haven’t gone through the first volume and that’s been twenty years! He is so deep, a lot like Aquinas, you have to pause on each page to digest it.
I’ll close this comment with something Lewis said in his “Old Books” essay: “Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said…But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The essay continues as he presses his point.
It is pretty easy to get stuck. I’m not a strict Calvinist (I’m more of a Reformed/Calvinistic Baptist) and there would be some disagreement that I have with certain doctrines of Calvin. The “chapters” are quite long, and I would probably encourage one to work through just several sections at a time and not trying to just slug through it. I’m counting that there are 80 chapters total, and if you’re trying to read other things, it can be difficult to try doing even a chapter per week. So, definitely planning on reading less will help out. I’m with you there! I’m also trying to get through Augustine’s City of God this year. For right now, I’m keeping Institutes on my desk to try reading a little here and there during small breaks and I have City of God on my nightstand. We’ll see how that goes. 😀
Don’t forget the Bible, which has 783,137 words. Also, I recently finished Moby Dick which has: 206,052 words. I once slogged through the unabridged version of Les Miserables, which contains 655, 478 words. To this day, I prefer the abridged version which takes out all the extraneous material about Napoleon.
Did you count the words of the Bible?!! Well done. I suppose each translation has a few different words.
I forgot about Les Mis until you said it. When will that be for me? I don’t know, but I hear it is a transformative experience.
I think I want to read more classic SciFi and Charles Dickens.
Well, I’ve read _The Faerie Queene_ straight through twice, but not recently. I need to go back through. I also have other romance epics (in translations) sitting on the shelf ready to be read through: _Orlando Furioso_, _Gerusalemme Liberata_, and _Os Lusiadas_. Any day now, maybe.
I look forward to turning to Orlando Furioso and some of the French sources behind the Arthurian tales I know in English.
It honestly depends on my mood as to whether I go for a longer or shorter book. Most of the time it seems that when I want a shorter book it’s because I want some lighter reading and if I go for a longer book it’s because I want something deeper and more “literary.” (P.S. “verbal obesity” is such a great phrase.)
I am a “mood reader”–lame phrase, I know. But I have a kids book or quick read ready for when I want a bedtime reading shift. And sometimes my phone book (Kindle or Kobo) is a short read. That helps on the in-between time reads.
Thanks on “verbal obesity.” I suppose I was thinking of “Muscular Prose”.
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Hey, it works! (Kids books are fantastic.)
It’s funny, but Pamela didn’t feel that long to me…probably because it was a ebook. Similarly, the many volumes of the D’Artagnan Romances never become truly tedious or daunting, but I’m sure they’d be intimidating if one stacked them on a table, from “The Three Musketeers” to “The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later.”
I was a little too hard on Pamela. It was the lack of variance of voice, i think. Have you read Clarissa?
I didn’t know what D’Artagnan Romances were! Looking them up, I see the 3 Musketeers (which makes sense, given the name). C.S. Lewis thought 3 Musk was lame, but I look forward to seeing it in my hands.
The Three Musketeers is just the first of the D’Artagnan Romances. The next takes him, Athos, Aramis, and Porthos to England to try to help Charles the first, and the third covers the Man in the Iron Mask plot as well as the court intrigues of Louis the Thirteenth and the restoration of royalty in England with Charles the Second. Not historically accurate, of course, but highly entertaining.
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I don’t care about the length of the book, but the denseness. If I’m getting through it too fast, I feel like I am cheated…but maybe because I know it will end sooner. Ulysses was worth it. It was like a chocolate cheesecake, big and dense. Other things are like angel cake… big, but too fluffy. Then there’s the pralines… very good, but not as satisfying unless you save them for the right moment.
I get your point. I think all readers have their own quirks. It’s fun to learn them
I know readers like you, and I have felt books were too short. I look forward to Tolkien’s “book”–millions of words with a few chapters.
Ulysses is ahead for me, but probably not this year.
I like cheesecake … perhaps once or twice a year.
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“I am a reader of less literary stamina than the great grand-patriarchs of the past.”
I strongly suspect that is true of most of us. It certainly is of me…
I promised I would never say this, but the words are pertinent: tru dat.
I have a love/hate relationship with big books. While most of the whoppers I’ve read have been enjoyable and worthwhile, I tend to have a grudge against them–they’re keeping me away from other books while I work my way through them.
I’ve read many of the big books you mentioned, and enjoyed them all. Last year I read the Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature cover to cover, over 2000 pages of small print. Glad I did. I also read two longish novels–Youngblood Hawke by Herman Wouk and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. Both excellent. I’m not yet sure what big ones 2017 has in store for me.
Hi Bill, I have had grudges on books (can you feel that in my relationship with Ayn Rand?). I have never read one of those Anthologies, but have a few of them. It seems like an intriguing way to cut across a lot of literature.
I’ve not read either of those longer novels.
I love long books. But unfortunately I tend not to read longer books these days because of time constraints. That being said, if I really love the characters and the story the longer the better in my opinion. I have that C.S. Lewis quote framed on my wall, my daughter gave it to me as a beautiful piece of art that she made for me as long books and tea are two of my favourite things. I hadn’t realized until now that Lewis himself only wrote short books! Well I suppose if you add Narnia all together the whole series is long. I have read many of the fantasy books you mentioned – sometimes I think one of the reasons I love fantasy so much is because the books tend to be long. Heartily recommend the Thomas Covenant series and Patrick Rothfuss. I grew weary of George R.R. Martin after about book 3 – the first books were brilliant but it got so depressing I couldn’t do it any more. I admit I had to struggle a bit through Dune, but Stephen King’s books can be brilliant. If you haven’t read The Stand, you should! One of favourite authors outside of fantasy is Diana Gabaldon, the queen of long books. Her Outlander series (which I suppose you could classify as fantasy as time-travel is involved) is fantastic, with a wonderful love story at the heart of it. She is an incredible writer. I tend to think, however, that sometimes big name authors write long books that actually should be shorter but their editors didn’t want to tell them that there was stuff that should be cut out. Although I really loved King’s 11/22/63 I thought there were parts at the beginning that could have been cut. Anyhow, sorry this is a long post. Writing short is hard for me. 🙂
You are right about the importance of editing. Even though Lewis’ books are short, he still could have used a strong second hand. Tolkien really benefited from editors, though earlier on in the writing.
King, too, is sometimes in need of writing. But he is the master of the slow build, isn’t he?
Well, yes. But there’s slow and then there’s sloooooowww…..My main objection to 11/22/63 was that at the beginning King was setting up the premise of how hard it is to change events in the past. Which is fine, but he kept going over and over that. Show us a couple of examples, and then move on! I’d love to know where you think Lewis could benefit from editing. Definitely not something I had ever considered in his case. A future blog post maybe?
I’d rate ‘It’ as King at his best and reckon its length is largely justified (something not necessarily true of his other work – 11/22/63 would have worked just fine as a short story). I’ve read and enjoyed ‘War & Peace’ as a teenager, but I hadn’t read a long 19th century novel in years until this summer, when I read ‘David Copperfield’, which was good, undemanding fun. I’d say the same about ‘The Three Musketeers’.
I think one’s tolerance for long books decreases with age. You have less time and are less inclined to assume that the writer has something worthwhile to tell you, as – by a certain point in your life – you’ve formed your own opinions about human nature.
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