Good Reading : November 2004
fat book slim last word When TVs, laptops and phones are all getting smaller and slimmer, GARETH BEAL wonders why books are bucking the trend and getting bigger. 54 goodreading Curious, isn’t it, that in an age when attention spans are supposed to be getting shorter, novels on the whole are doing exactly the opposite? You would think that if it really were a problem for the average Australian to keep their minds on a half-hour televi- sion show, the prospect of reading the latest 700-page airport thriller would seem to be well nigh impossible. Or perhaps this is merely a sign that the doomsayers were wrong (aren’t they always?) and in fact the book will prevail long after the remote control has been relegated to the Museum of Antiquated Pastimes. It may be no coincidence that the thickness of novels can increasingly be measured in centimetres while the latest televisions are steadily becoming paper-thin. Perhaps, one day, serious young men will walk around with dog- eared vis-screens stuffed into their back pockets, and families will spend their evenings sitting around the latest 250,000-page bestseller. None of them would be able to lift it, let alone read it, but at those proportions the dust jacket itself would be an aesthetic marvel. Which is not to say that thick novels are anything new, or that they are neces- sarily getting any thicker per se (after all, the cornerstone of all novels, Don Quixote, is nothing if not a brick); no, I guess what I’m really trying to say is that novels overall appear to be getting thicker simply because the thinner variety have, in recent years, all but disappeared. Why? Part of the reason (obviously) is that writers aren’t writing them any- more. I should point out here that I’m not talking about ‘novellas’, which are really more like long short stories.Thin novels are written on approximately the same scale as thicker ones, but in a more concentrated way, with less dialogue and/ or description, and a variety of meanings crammed into every sentence. Indeed, this can actually make them longer and (as anyone who has read Kafka will tell you) harder to read than books twice their size. Thick novels are often quicker to read precisely because the same amount of information is spread out over three to four times as many pages.That said, the more diluted any story becomes, the more likely the potential for pulp. Not that there’s anything wrong with pulp. But in any diet, digestive or literary, a healthy balance is important. If books can be described as ‘brain-food’, then thin novels are the Nori rolls to a thick novel’s nachos.Variety is the spice of life after all, and a diet of nothing but nachos seems ultimately bland – not to mention fattening. Perhaps, again in that distant future, the thickness of books will become a kind of mental obesity, with people struggling to cut down their daily intake of pages. Reading groups would then become the literary equivalent of Weight Watchers meetings:‘Hi everyone, my name’s Zotron and I’m addicted to Stephen (Burger) King. In the space of less than a year, my preferred novel thick- ness ballooned from a trim 150 to some- where in the vicinity of 600 pages plus. Now, with your support, and the help of the good folk at The Reader’s Digest, I’ve managed to abridge my reading habit to a respectable 275…’ A frightening vision, I’m sure you’ll agree. But returning to the present, the question remains: what’s happened to all the thin novels? We’ve already estab- lished that writers aren’t writing them, and this is most likely because publish- ers aren’t publishing them – but again, why? Naturally: because readers aren’t buying them. Not ‘reading them’, mind you, but buying them. Because, when it comes to wall decorations – and, let’s be honest, that’s all a lot of books ever turn out to be – size does matter.After all, a shelf full of thick novels says as much about how clever we are as a hundred- centimetre television says how wealthy. But it may be that appearances are neces- sarily deceiving. Dan Brown’s bestselling (and rela- tively thick) Da Vinci Code, for example, is not only a story but also a fairly pre- cise list of suggestions as to how that story should be understood. Carefully explaining every twist and turn in its own narrative, it’s not that we read Brown’s novel so much as it reads itself to us.This shouldn’t be interpreted as a criticism, merely an observation (see? now I’m doing it).Thin novels, con- versely, are open to a variety of interpre- tations, their very lack of size implying that on some level they’ve been left unwritten, for us to fill in the blanks. And why should we as consumers pay good money for a book we have to co- write ourselves? Of course, even in the thickest of novels, thinner texts may lurk. I, for one, have been the proud owner of James Joyce’s Ulysses for several years now, yet to this day I haven’t made it past page 22 … But perhaps I should leave that par- ticular confession for a reading group sometime in the future. If books can be described as ‘brain-food’, then thin novels are the Nori rolls to a thick novel’s nachos.
December January 2005