Sunday Salon: Just Long or a Big Slog?

Some of you may have noticed that I’ve gone radio silent here on Shelf Love this week, although Jenny’s been posting away and tempting me as always with her book choices. (One of the benefits of blogging with a friend is that if one person must be away for a while, the blog need not go silent. So far, we’ve never both had to step back at the same time.)

Anyway, the reason for my silence this week is twofold. One reason is that I’ve just been unusually busy. Usually, even when I’m this busy, I can still manage to finish a book each week, but this week was different, which brings me to the second reason: the book I’m working on now is the 1,200-page The Count of Monte Cristo.

If you read my Read-a-Thon post from last Saturday, you saw that I was really enjoying the book. It’s a great story, filled with drama! and intrigue! and derring do! But early this week, I hit a wall with it. There was simply too much drama! and intrigue! and derring do! Not to mention too many characters, too much set-up, and not enough payoff. At least this was my feeling shortly after the halfway point of the book. Joanne and Amanda assured me in a Twitter conversation that things will pick back up.

All of that got me thinking about our reactions to long books. If you follow this blog at all closely, you’ll know that I do love a tome. I love those long-winded Victorians and consider Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell one of the best reads of the last ten years. A book of under 400 pages seems on the short side to me. But even my most beloved tomes rarely clock in at over 800 pages or so. And that makes me wonder, is there a point at which a book is just too long, even for the most patient of readers?

Last summer, I read Infinite Jest and blew hot and cold about it. I was passionately in love with parts of it (the long discourse about video phones still makes me smile), but I was frustrated at other parts. I’ve not gotten nearly as frustrated with The Count of Monte Cristo, mostly because it’s much more like the kinds of books I usually read and adore. However, the length of the book has given me more time to reflect on the reasons for the length. I don’t want to say too much about that, because Jenny and I will be doing a full post about it on May 4 for the Classics Circuit. It’s just hard not to wonder, when reading something so long, that takes so much time to read, whether the book wouldn’t be better if it weren’t a little shorter.

What do you think? Do you tend to prefer longer or shorter books? When does length become excess? What must a book achieve to be worth over 1,000 pages? Is any book worth that?

In other news: I’ve had the pleasure this week of meeting another wonderful book blogger face to face. Yesterday, Frances from Nonsuch Book and I went to see Tyne Daly in Masterclass by Terence McNally at the Kennedy Center. It was a great show, and Frances was great company.

Notes from a Reading Life

Books Completed

  • None. See above.

Currently Reading

  • Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. See above.
  • Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkein (reread). I actually finished the novel itself and was tempted to move it up, but I’m also reading/skimming the appendices (reading the history, skimming the languages), so I’m not technically.
  • Kim by Rudyard Kipling (audio). I’m nearly done, but I regret getting it on audio. I finding it a tough listen, but I think I’d like it in print. I’ve reread bits of the public domain online version, but I’m not great with reading that much onscreen.
  • Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis (reread). My favorite Lewis; my church’s weekly book group is discussing it, and I’ve been enjoying revisiting it with others.

On Deck

  • Prince Rupert’s Teardrop by Lisa Glass. Still hoping to get this read before my England trip.

New Acquisitions

  • On Art and Life by John Ruskin. I’ve been considering visiting Ruskin’s home in the Lake District on my vacation so I thought it would be nice to read some of his writing. This little book contains some of his thoughts on artistic freedom and creativity over mass production.
  • Nineteen Seventy Four by David Peace. When I was looking for Yorkshire reading suggestions Catherine of Juxtabook recommended Peace’s gritty crime series, The Red Riding Quartet, of which this is the first.
  • Call to Commitment by Elizabeth O’Connor. The story of Church of the Savior, an ecumenical ministry/church in Washington DC.

Books on My Radar

  • Cool Water by Dianne Warren. Quiet fiction about rural Canada. Reviewed at The Gleeful Reader.
  • Black Water Rising by Attica Locke. A novel of mystery and intrigue centered on a shooting on a midnight cruise. Longlisted for the Orange Prize. Reviewed at Lizzy’s Literary Life.
  • The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey. Another Orange longlister—this one is about a British couple that moved to Trinidad in the 1950s and the culture clashes and marital strife they faced. Reviewed at Other Stories.
  • The Twisted Heart by Rebecca Gowers. Yet another Orange longlister. Yes, I do find time slip novels irresistible, even if they’re usually uneven. Even the uneven ones are usually good reads. In her review, Victoria at Eve’s Alexandria acknowledges the weaknesses of this one, even as she admits to enjoying it. Based on her review (and Kirsty’s at Other Stories), I suspect I would too.
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45 Responses to Sunday Salon: Just Long or a Big Slog?

  1. I often think really, really long books could do with a little editing. I feel the same way about really, really long movies too, usually. It might be the journalist in me, but I’m a huge fan of good and critical editing to weed out things that get in the way. I do love reading long books, occasionally, though. I’m trying to decide what one big long summer project book will be (since I did Infinite Jest last summer and enjoyed working on that).

    • Teresa says:

      Kim, I’ve loved some really, really long books and movies, but even some that I’ve loved might not have been hurt with a little trimming!

      I’ve thought about doing a project book again this summer, because that was a pretty good way to read Infinite Jest. But I may decide on a different sort of project altogether, or no project at all. So many possibilities…

      • Jenny says:

        I had a great experience last summer with my Really Long Classics (Story of the Stone in 5 volumes and War and Peace.) This summer I think I am going to do Proust!

  2. Nymeth says:

    I love those long-winded Victorians too. Sometimes, especially when I’m busy, I tend to shy away from chunksters out of fear that they’ll make me feel like I’m getting nowhere in my reading. But then I tell myself not to be silly, because I do love a long book. Longer books often feel more immersive, and, because I spend more time with them, often turn out to be more memorable. There is, however, a point where long does become too long. I’m just not sure if I can pinpoint what makes the difference.

    • Teresa says:

      Nymeth, The immersive quality is what I love about those long-winded Victorians, too. And I do think there’s a point when long becomes too long, but I guess it varies according to the book.

  3. Priscilla says:

    I love longer books, because I love the sense of immersion they give me. I enjoy spending time with a book in that way….but then that’s the problem: time. My reading time varies, and especially with the blog, I worry about spending too much time on (or with) one book. And I admit, if I am reading one and have another one waiting for me that I am really excited to read, I can get impatient, especially toward the end. It’s a little bit like running: some days, the last mile seems the longest of them all, but on others, it’s smooth sailing.

    • Teresa says:

      Priscilla, I have that same experience of really wanting to get onto the next thing sometimes. And I suppose I could put the chunkster down and read something else for a bit, but when I do that, I usually end up not returning to the chunkster at all, which perhaps means it wasn’t worth its length :-)

  4. Frances says:

    Thanks again for suggesting yesterday. Thoroughly enjoyed both you and the wonderful production. Already searching for some other Terrence McNally plays to read.

    As you know, I am reading through three huge books this month. Wonderful reading (though not blogging) month but now I am getting the itch to finish at least one of them instead of reading all concurrently. Makes me realize that what I most enjoy about a longer book is that feeling of complete immersion. Feeling immersed in three very detailed works at a time is a bit trickier than I anticipated. I keep eyeing that copy of Beatrice and Virgil and thinking I should take a quick break. If I finish The Brothers Karamazov today I think I will. Happy reading!

    (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a favorite of mine too.)

    • Teresa says:

      Frances, I’m so glad you were able to join me!

      Each one of your tomes would be impressive to tackle on its own, so I’m amazed that you’re managing all three. I’ll be interested to see what you think of Beatrice and Virgil. Opinions seem to be widely mixed, and I haven’t decided if I’ll read it at all.

  5. Michelle says:

    I love longer novels for I feel that they allow a reader to better create their world and establish their characters in such a way that it is easy for a reader to completely immerse him or herself into the novel.

    If it makes you feel any better, my husband picked up TCOMC on my behest after I finished it for my book club many summers ago and raved about it. Three years later and he still has not finished it. His complaint – it is just too long. He feels Dumas has been setting up the finale for way too long and just wants him to get on with it. So, not everyone feels the way I do about longer novels! LOL!

    • Teresa says:

      Michelle, I usually adore long books, but I’m with your husband on the too much set-up difficulty. I know the payoff will be tremendous, but it’s taking forever.

  6. It really depends. The Lord of the Rings is over a thousand pages long and is more than worth it, while I’m convinced that Elizabeth Kostova needs an editor with the backbone to stand up to her.

    There are long books that go quite quickly and short books that go slowly. It’s a combination of pace, talent, and yes, length. If the story is that long, I’m fine. If the story is being padded, I am not fine.

    • Teresa says:

      Clare, I so so agree with you on the Tolkien and the Kostova. At half its length, I would have adored The Historian. I do think Tolkien was helped by the division into three separate volumes. You still get that feeling of accomplishment that comes with reaching the final page.

      And I also agree that it does depend on the book. Some stories need 1,000+ pages to be adequately told, and some could be told in 50.

  7. Victoria says:

    I too love a long book—I loved Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell as well–but there definitely is a line–somewhere–and sometimes I think it has to do with how well the author is doing. If I’m really loving a book I usually don’t mind super length but if I’m struggling through parts of it then I obviously think it could be shorter. (I had much the same experience with Infinite Jest as you did).

    I always find it fun and interesting to figure why a book may be so long. As in the case of The Count of Monte Cristo (which I read last year with my book club) and other long sprawling Victorians the mere fact that they came out as serials tells me something about the length. What better way to keep your revenue stream coming than to write a very long book!

    Happy reading and good luck!

    • Teresa says:

      Victoria, Excellent point about serials. That makes for an altogether different reading experience. And I can imagine people just begging for more from week to week with Monte Cristo.

  8. Jeane says:

    For me the best length is between two and three hundred pages. Longer than that starts to feel really tedious and I often loose interest halfway through. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was an exception, though- I really flew through that one! I think one of the longest books I read was Moby Dick (the edition I had was about 800 pages) and it took me three months. Whew!

    • Teresa says:

      Jeane: I’ve read a lot of good books in the 200-300 page range, but I do seem to gravitate toward longer ones, at least when choosing my absolute favorites. But despite my love of the chunkster, I still haven’t read Moby Dick. Not sure I want to either.

  9. Gavin says:

    I enjoy long books but sometimes feel discouraged when they bog down. I am usually reading two or three books at a time so that helps. When I finish a thick, dense book, like Wolf Hall, I need to take a break and read a good mystery!

    A book over 800 pages just seems terribly daunting. As Victoria mentioned many of the classic tomes came out as serials and reading them that way must have been like watch drama shows with cliff-hanger endings, you waited breathlessly for the next chapter to reach you.

    I haven’t read a really long book in a while but am considering picking up the new translation of War and Peace. If I do I will blog about my reading experience, just to keep track of how I’m feeling about it. Thanks for a great post!

    • Teresa says:

      Gavin, I’ll definitely be ready for something shorter after Count!

      Yesterday it did occur to me that Monte Cristo’s labyrinthine plot is not unlike something like Lost, where you know (or suspect) there’s a plan but can’t quite figure it out. Can you imagine the online fan boards for a serial like this, if such a thing had existed back in those days?

      And I have yet to read War and Peace, but I know Jenny loved it, and I look forward to seeing your thoughts.

  10. Kristen M. says:

    I’m with you on longer books. I also consider anything under about 400 pages short. I like the deeper development of character and place and as long as the book keeps a decent pace, I am not daunted by length. When I look at my favorite books, many of them are quite long. I’ve been reading a lot of shorter books lately but have started craving something grand, possibly Dickens.

    • Teresa says:

      Kristen, Almost all of my favorites top 500 pages. There’s so much more the author can explore. I do like a short book now and then, but I couldn’t make them my main diet.

      I haven’t read Dickens for years. As much as I love the Victorians, he’s the one I don’t get on with so well.

  11. Kathleen says:

    I really love The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s funny because I don’t think I really thought of it as being long until I read your blog. I read it with a good friend of mine and we discussed it as we were both reading it. That probably kept me from noticing things about the book that might have dragged for me otherwise. I’m sometimes intimidated by longer books which is one reason why I love my Kindle sometimes. You don’t have that same sense that you are reading a ridiculously long book so I can’t freak myself out about it.

    • Teresa says:

      Kathleen, LOL. I’ve had the same thought about other books I love that other people thought were overly long. They didn’t feel long to me at all! I think Count would be cool to read with someone so you could talk and speculate along the way.

  12. Eva says:

    I love chunksters, and last year I made a point of reading three novels over 1,000 pages. One of those was Count of Monte Cristo, which I didn’t like at all. So maybe it’s more Monte Cristo than big books in general! lol

  13. gaskella says:

    I don’t go out of my way to read long books, but providing I can get into them, I do usually enjoy them. I adored Jonathan Strange, and I also loved Charles Palliser’s the Quincunx, which is a pastiche of a Victorian mystery. I have several sitting on the shelf – including Infinite Jest – which I’ve been looking at for years and not getting round to, as their sheer volume is quite intimidating.

    I always used to re-read LOTR in one go, but have enjoyed splitting it into its constituent chunks this spring, so maybe this is an approach that could work with other chunksters – but you have to find an appropriate place to stop.

  14. litlove says:

    I admit i have some trouble with long books. Up to 500 pages, well, I’m just about okay with that. But once a book extends beyond that limit, I really begin to question whether the words are necessary. I’m sure in many cases they are, but for me, my attention does begin to flag. It’s a weakness on my part, I think, and one I should work on, as I’d love to read Jonathan Strange but keep shying away from it!

    • Teresa says:

      Litlove, I remember you’ve talked about your trouble with long books before. If it helps, JS&MrN is divided into parts, so you could treat it as separate books, much like LOTR, but just collected into one volume!

  15. Aubergine Kenobi says:

    I love long books, but like you, sometimes I struggle to finish the really long ones. Funnily enough, I have more problems reading the classic ones than the modern ones, but I believe it is more due to how book publishing has changed, I mean, modern books are printed all at once, and we’re more or less expected to read them in one go, so the storylines tend to be more straightforward, while the old classic ones were printed as feuilleton, so a couple of chapters every week, and since they were meant to keep the readers interested (to make them buy the next feuilleton), they tend to be really really long (introducing all kinds of twists and characters to the story), some of them were not even finished before they started publishing! (like some modern soap operas). Perhaps we should change our reading styles to match the feuilleton ones, and start reading one chapter a week! ;)
    I love your blog, by the way, and hope you like The Count, I loved it!

    • Teresa says:

      Aubergine, You know, there is a service (Dailylit, I think it’s called) that does e-mail books in short installments, and I’ve wondered if that would be a way of getting the experience of original readers of the Victorian classics. I can imagine that for the original readers, Monte Cristo could create the same speculation and excitement as a modern-day soap opera or serial TV show like Lost.

  16. Jenny says:

    I enjoy long books, but I have to be able to set time aside for them in a way that I don’t with shorter books. So I think I sometimes steer clear of chunksters just because I know I’m not going to be able to make the time commitment. When I do have a long stretch of free time, though, it’s lovely to curl up on the sofa and read a looooong book. Preferably with a thunderstorm outside.

  17. Iris says:

    I think to me my enjoyment of long books depends on the amount of time I have on my hands. That’s why I usually save long books or classics for vacations. It also depends on what sort of “reading mood” I’m in: at times I just want to read a few short books, while at other times I like to sit back and immerse myself in the world of a story, which often works better with a longer read.

    • Teresa says:

      Iris, Although I do tend to like long books best of all, there are times when I want something shorter, and sometimes those moods last for a while.

  18. Steph says:

    I think I’ve frequently spoken about how long books scare me, mostly because I seem to always experience what you’re talking about: burn out. I find that when I’m reading a book for longer than a week, I really lose momentum with it, even if I was enjoying it at first. That actually happened to me with The Count of Monte Cristo! I made it to about page 400 or so, and then just sort of lost interest and put it down in favor of other things. Same with A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. I do intend to tackle both of them again one of these days, but generally I like books that are 500 pp or less!

    • Teresa says:

      Steph, Yes, I do think I’ve seen you mention that problem before. It’s funny because it is an unusual problem for me. It happens, but not that often. But then again, I usually finish even my typical 500 page chunksters within a week; this is just an *extreme* chunkster.

  19. bookssnob says:

    I am usually put off by long books because I have a short attention span. It’s my impatient nature. I will and do read them, when I feel like it, and have time to really get into them – usually during the winter months or on holiday, when I can read for hours interrupted- but for everyday reading I prefer a book I can easily get through in a weeks’ worth of commuting. As my journey to work is my only time to read most days, a long meaty book just doesn’t work for me when I have to read it in thirty minute snatches during which I can be frequently distracted by the noise of what’s going on around me. I prefer shorter books that I can pick up and put down easily and that I will finish in a few days. I am also anxious to reduce my TBR pile and so shorter books automatically get put to the top as I can whizz through them quicker!

    • Teresa says:

      Rachel, I know what you mean about not being able to read long books in short snatches. I can usually manage to find large chunks of time several times a week, so that’s not a problem. But lately, I have been unusually busy and short on chunks of time, so that might be exacerbating the problem!

      And I laughed at your comment about moving shorter books to the top of the TBR pile. When I was getting ready to move several years ago, I organized my books according to length and read the shortest first so I could discard those that weren’t keepers and not have to move them! I realized, though, that it wouldn’t work as a long-term solution because those long books would never be read :)

  20. Elle says:

    Ooh – I do so love a nice long book, even the hefty weight of it in my hands.

    Haven’t yet read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but it’s been on my shelf for ages. Perhaps I’ll have to pick it up for a long weekend.

    As for length – I really truly think it depends on the book. I’ve read 300 page books that could have had 150 pages shaved off them, and then there are 800 page books that could use another 400 pages to truly tell the story. It depends on the story that needs telling, the characters that need fleshing out, and the quality of the writing.

    Thanks so much for the link to my review!

    • Teresa says:

      Elle, That is so true. I’ve read plenty of novellas that really should have been short stories, and short stories that could have been expanded to full-length novels.

  21. JoAnn says:

    Can’t wait to read your final thoughts on The Count! I’ve always loved long books, but have been reading fewer of them since I started blogging. A weekly review is my goal and I can’t read fast enough to get through those chunksters in a week. I really need to reassess….

    • Teresa says:

      JoAnn, I undersand what you mean. It’s not so much a factor for me, since Jenny and I haven’t been reading chunksters at the same time, so there’s at least one new review a week. I have seen some bloggers do progress reports or sneak in novellas and graphic novels when they’re reading something big.

  22. rebeccareid says:

    I read Count one year during my lunch break at work. Yes, it took forever. I LOVED it for the first 500 pages but then like you, it dragged and dragged and DRAGGED. I can’t say I enjoyed it much. I read the abridged in high school, which was essentially the first 500 pages plus the ending, and I loved it. So yes, I think that particular book is far too long and would do well to have 800 pages excised. But I guess we’ll have to leave those thoughts to your review post…

    • Teresa says:

      Rebecca, The review post is in progress, but it’ll be a couple of weeks before you see my thoughts. I’ll just say that I see where you’re coming from. ;)

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