Is that a doorstop or are you happy to read me?
December 11, 2015 11:49 AM   Subscribe

Are books getting longer? A new survey says yes. One of the factors cited in increasing book length is the availability of short digital content, such as Kindle Singles or Serial Box (serial SFF). But many of those digital books are going unread after purchase. Meanwhile, the rise of e-books is costing jobs: warehouse jobs.
posted by immlass (28 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I don't remember where I read it, the Scalazi blog(?) but SF/F in the golden age was designed for supermarket paperbook racks. Thus the functional length of 80-120 pages. (aprox length due to aprox memory :-)
posted by sammyo at 11:55 AM on December 11, 2015

That's correct, and moreover you had the "Ace Double" which would be two books crammed into that space.

Back then there was also less of an emphasis on rigorous worldbuilding or "lore" or whatever, so the SF would be like "OK, trot my Big Idea out, explore it a bit in a colorful way, wrap things up!"

I love those books.

The only downside was that publishers would try to cram longer books into that space by, you guessed it, using tiny type. I recently read The Black Obelisk in such a format and it was a bit painful!
posted by selfnoise at 12:02 PM on December 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

I prefer short books, they don't waste words.
posted by FallowKing at 12:06 PM on December 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm regularly reading books in the multiple thousands of pages these days but also I just like setting the font size really big on my e-reader.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 12:07 PM on December 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

- When Did Books Get So Freaking Enormous? The Year of the Very Long Novel [Vulture]
- Is Big Back? [The Millions]
- Size Does Matter. The Longest Novels. [AbeBooks]
- Why we love loooong novels. [Salon]
posted by Fizz at 12:07 PM on December 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

I am pretty sure I show up as never finishing any book I ever buy because I remove DRM and use Calibre to organise everything.
posted by jeather at 12:13 PM on December 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

The "going unread" thing reminded me of how many games I have in my Steam account that I haven't played, and that I'm much more conservative about my purchases than a lot of people. I think it's gotten hard to judge how much you have when it's not a physical thing, even though I much prefer digital copies for both things.

I do have at least three novels in my Amazon account that I haven't gotten to yet, and at least two of those have been there more than six months. Maybe I need to get to those.
posted by Sequence at 12:15 PM on December 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I dunno, I think most heavy readers have big piles of "to be read" books. I know I have an entire 6+ foot shelf of books I intend to read. Someday.
posted by Justinian at 12:25 PM on December 11, 2015 [6 favorites]

I've kinda had a thing for big books lately. War and Peace, Gravity's Rainbow, Les Miserables (unabridged)...hell, I read In Search of Lost Time which is six big books. I've been lugging Infinite Jest around since June, in hardcover. 300-ish pages left.
posted by dnash at 12:26 PM on December 11, 2015

I've kinda had a thing for big books lately.

Same. I just finished Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life, and now I'm starting in on Steinbeck's East of Eden. There's something pleasant about spending more than a few weeks with a book, they get to feel like old friends.
posted by Fizz at 12:30 PM on December 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don’t mind a long book, but I want a book to be the right length. I’ve thought for years that there was a combination of padding and slack editing going on. Books that are obviously just right for a very long magazine article are padded out to 300 pages.

It’s a strange time. People are constantly talking about how frantic life is today, no free time, etc. But books are longer, movies are longer, TV shows are full time commitments to endless story arcs, and a lot of it is just padding.
posted by bongo_x at 12:35 PM on December 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

I had a dream earlier this week that I was trying to buy a book out of a vending machine. You'd feed in tickets and push the button for the book you wanted and Bob's your uncle. Except I was massively annoyed because the books had to be physically stocked inside the thing. Why, I asked myself, isn't this a print-on-demand setup? I should be able to choose literally any book and have a copy in my hands five minutes from now.

I have to confess that I love the convenience of reading ebooks on my Volkswagen-size phone, but my son is a toddler now and I want him to see mommy reading so I'm back to physical copies. I'm here for you, warehouse workers.
posted by trunk muffins at 12:36 PM on December 11, 2015 [8 favorites]

I dunno, I think most heavy readers have big piles of "to be read" books.

Not necessarily. If I haven't got around to a book in 6 months, out it goes. Most of my kindle reading is from the library, and library books disappear on their due date (unless you turn on airplane mode). My "to read" list is already pretty long and I don't have enough room to store them all, let alone all of the books I'll want to read next year (and the year after that).

Some of the long novels I've read have had editing problems - if you cut the repetitive language and dialogue from A Little Life or The Goldfinch, they'd be much shorter.
posted by betweenthebars at 12:40 PM on December 11, 2015

> "I've kinda had a thing for big books lately."

And you cannot lie.
posted by kyrademon at 12:48 PM on December 11, 2015 [7 favorites]

Roger Ebert had a rule of thumb about movies that could equally apply to books: "No good movie is too long. No bad movie is short enough."
posted by Flexagon at 12:51 PM on December 11, 2015 [11 favorites]

Books should be like mini-skirts: long enough to cover everything, short enough to be interesting.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:54 PM on December 11, 2015 [11 favorites]

I love old short science fiction and fantasy novels much more now as a parent with a job than I did when I was younger. For pretty obvious reasons. Reading a novel within the confines of a 24-hour period is a special kind of bliss, where you never have to change gears and get back into it.
posted by graymouser at 12:58 PM on December 11, 2015

I love big books. Classic ones, anyway. No question that there's a depth and richness you don't get otherwise (if they're done right).

But it's a matter of pacing. When I was in uni, I could burn though a pile of Great Russian Novels no problem, because I had the time which I could dedicate to them. Now I'm a grownup, and I find that my reading time has been reduced to an hour each Saturday and Sunday (if I'm home), and fifteen-twenty minutes before bed (if I'm not too late or too tired). With that pittance of time, big books simply aren't possible.

Vacation time doesn't really solve matters, either. My reading pile gets so big that once vacation time rolls around, I have the choice of reading one big book (which may or may not be worthwhile), or a dozen little books. I always seem to go for the small ones, just to clear more out of the pile.

Plus, smaller books usually have better pause points, where it's easier to put it down for the night. When big books don't have those, there's usually some refresher reading just to get yourself set up right again.

End result is that I've developed a love for the novella. Is that cheating? Is that not enough somehow? No -- it takes a lot of skill to be concise. They just work out much better for my position in life at the moment. But big books -- oh, I wish I could again.
posted by Capt. Renault at 1:09 PM on December 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't remember where I read it, the Scalazi blog(?) but SF/F in the golden age was designed for supermarket paperbook racks. Thus the functional length of 80-120 pages. (aprox length due to aprox memory :-)
posted by sammyo at 7:55 PM on December 11

It was possibly this Charles Stross post.
posted by dng at 1:15 PM on December 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

"No good movie is too long. No bad movie is short enough."

We Hate Movies has its "Star Wars" test, which is two pronged:

(1) Was this movie longer than "Star Wars"? and
(2) Did I walk out of this movie saying, "wow, I wish I'd spent that time watching "Star Wars"?

If you can answer "no" to either of these questions, then it's passed the "Star Wars" test. It's actually a fairly easy test to pass. But, as a film gets longer, it's way harder to pass the "Star Wars" test, just because I could have watched "Star Wars" and gone on to do something else.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 1:19 PM on December 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

"No good movie is too long. No bad movie is short enough."

Most films that are more than 100 minutes long could probably have been shorter without losing any of their impact. Most of my favorite movies of various genres are between 81 minutes (Winter Light) and 102 minutes (Casablanca). Even thinking of films that I really enjoyed that stretch closer to 120 minutes I can feel ways that they could have been made more taut. Over 120 minutes is just excess and feels bloated. For books, I'd say the rule of thumb stretches a bit longer, but I do love a book that can delight in under 150 pages.
posted by graymouser at 1:46 PM on December 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Novellas: Too long to be a short story, too short to be a book; the best format for science fiction.
posted by el io at 2:21 PM on December 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

(I'm addressing mainly SF and fantasy genre books here, because those tend most toward the "long/series" concept, and because I'm most familiar with them...)

The Lord of the Rings. The Book of the New Sun. Perhaps Gateway... perhaps. Those are the only really long books where I feel that you couldn't remove a word without damaging it.

Illuminatus! is a weird exception. You could probably cut out a hundred pages from that 800 page book without really affecting the plot and yet its intricate detail and discursive nature is part of its charms - as well as being a really pretty good course in Western Mainstream Occultism and mysticism in general.

But, well... take Harry Potter. I read each and every one of them. But do I remember what happened in book 7? I remember the last thirty pages - sort of. I remember the last twenty minutes of the 7B movie. (7B? What suckers we are!)

I was sad when I saw the movie of the Lord of the Rings and there was no Tom Bombadil. I missed him immediately. (Something had to give in the editing process, of course...)

But they could have eliminated great hordes of characters from, say, HP-V and I would never have noticed.

Basically, they have less and less original magic to give us, so they have to rehash the same ideas over and over again and each time fill them out with more padding. I mean, there are four movies with Batman due out in the next two years - do we really get a thrill from this guy any more?

I like nice short books. Take Wolfbane: if I tried to describe the plot to you, you'd think it was at least two long books, but it's really 140 pages.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:17 PM on December 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm reading This Thing of Darkness. According to Amazon it is 596 pages, according to my iPhone it is 3976 pages. I've been reading it now for over a week and I'm not quite halfway through. The halfway mark seems like a mirage; each night I think I'm going to get there and then when I put my phone down I still have 200 "pages" to go.

I keep fighting the urge to read something else. That's the real problem with doorstoppers these days-- competing with all the other claims on my leisure time. Long ago and far away when I was a teenager, it was either sit in my room and read or go out and watch TV with the family. I got through a lot of the classics. Now, though, I keep wanting to check my email or my newsfeed, or Facebook to see what cute Schnauzer videos have been uploaded.

While I'm not riveted nor am I especially excited to get back on the boat, I am interested in the voyage of the Beagle. So I will probably keep going. But I better hurry up and finish this book before that history of vacations in America arrives in the mail because I know I won't be able to resist starting that and This Thing of Darkness will be left in the dust.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 4:38 PM on December 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

A fair bit of my "reading" lately has been audiobooks on long drives, so longer is definitely better. But it's tricky -- I want a lot of hours, a good reader, and also an engaging book, which turns out to be a rare combination. So for that purpose, I appreciate the trend towards longer books.

At the same time, I agree with the comments about padding and poor editing -- I have read several books in the past few months that could have easily lost a quarter of their length.

I've been lugging Infinite Jest around since June, in hardcover.

I love long books, but I found Infinite Jest to be completely unreadable. There is a lot more to why a given person will like or dislike a book than just the length.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:48 PM on December 11, 2015

Over 120 minutes is just excess and feels bloated

Depends on the genre. For a bit, I was immersing myself in Bollywood, where most movies run 3 hours and have an intermission -- they also almost always include lots of singing and dancing, even the dramas. Once you get a feel for the rhythm of the films, it works well enough that one time I found myself wondering "how are they going to wrap all this up? they only have another 60 minutes to do it!"
posted by fings at 7:20 PM on December 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I wanted to like Serial Box, but unfortunately I never really gave it the chance. For me, books are the original binge watching—having to wait for the next part of the book after reading just an hour or so is like torture. The serialized novel may once have been a typical thing, but I'm just not cut out for it.
posted by the antecedent of that pronoun at 7:40 PM on December 11, 2015

I will admit I have a ton of cheap/free e-books downloaded right now, who knows if I'll get through them all. I signed up for BookBub (sends you a list of cheap/free deals daily) and I've found some really good books, but sometimes it's cheap or free for a reason. So who knows if I'll get through them all.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:41 PM on December 11, 2015

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