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.
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.