On the Value of Long Books

Words by Taylor Fernandez

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In Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, one character asks another if he has read the entirety of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Tamaru responds, “No, I’ve never been in jail, or had to hide out for a long time. Someone once said unless you have those kinds of opportunities, you can’t read the whole of Proust.” Eerily, being isolated during a global pandemic feels like the exact type of opportunity that Tamaru proposes. Perhaps Tamaru’s words do not exclusively speak to the Proustian epic, but to any lengthy novel requiring a devoted chunk of time — including 1Q84 itself. And so, my commencement of the multiple-volumed journey began, as I read Swann’s Way whilst doing some hiding out of my own.

The choice to read — well, possibly attempt to read — one of the longest works of modern literature transpired from that internal syllogism that haunts me when purchasing a book. That is, I’ve generally enjoyed the long books that I’ve read, and since this book is lengthy, I will enjoy it. In fact, I will argue for the merit behind novels of 600, 800 or even 1000 pages: the epic tomes which have rightly earned their status as the “big chunguses” of the literary world. Obviously, there is no prescribed rule that the number of pages will correspond to the quality of the novel, but I can’t help noticing that quite a few of my favourite books are on the longer side.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s definitely lots to love about slimmer novels! I appreciate the short and snappy style that the likes of Vonnegut have achieved, or the physical freedom that a thin book affords my back as a serial commuter. But still, I find myself constantly gravitating toward these supposedly unfinishable books. One reason to choose a long novel is the challenge that they offer of finishing them; they scream ‘READ ME’ in Wonderland-like fashion. Though once you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, a good long book surpasses the expectations of being simply difficult and instead becomes just very, very, enjoyable. I also believe that in the same way that some authors are best suited to the short story, others are suited to the long form, which is where you will find their magnum opus.

Perhaps the reason why we may feel dissuaded by these many paged novels is that concern, “What if I’ve wasted so much time on a book that I didn’t like?” I read relatively fast. Therefore, I am afforded the privilege that my fellow quick readers are allowed: less time will be dedicated to sticking with these longer books. Even if we’re not having the great time we hoped, we can be satisfied with the knowledge that at least it’ll be over soon. But slower readers should not be discouraged, as some people spend months, years, even lives (Joycean scholars, I’m looking at you) devoted to one single epic book. I would argue that this supposed disadvantage — the long duration spent reading the book — is, in fact, the payoff. You can be fully immersed in the story and attached to the characters for longer. This may be especially pertinent if like me, you suffer from attachment issues to fiction. In fact, my sister and I were so attached to the TV show Lost, that we put off watching the finale for months after finishing the majority of the episodes… So basically, like Desmond Hume, you’ll find your constant (yours being the feeling of coming home to escape to the same novel every day).

Many huge novels are acknowledged for their value. They have formed a significant portion of the classic literary canon (Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, or Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace). However, longer novels are equally making their way into the contemporary landscape of fiction, whilst also finding success within the nominations for literary prizes, such as Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, or Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Therefore, long books are not just regarded for their chunky nature, but the rich merit behind their narratives.

You may also ask if it’s easy to retain the information from books over 500 pages. Honestly, no. Some plot points can become hazy (I certainly remember spending lost time reading Don DeLillo’s Underworld, but if asked to recall what happened, the main things that stand out are Ol’ Blue Eyes showing up in the prologue, and a store selling all types of condoms). But from my experience, the memories you gain from an encyclopaedic novel form your own madeleine moment: you’ll see or hear something and remember one particular segment of the book that you thought you’d forgotten about. Though hopefully in a less annoying manner than me, when I pass a tennis court and feel obliged to tell whoever I’m with about a random section of Infinite Jest.

So perhaps in some circumstances, more length does equate to more pleasure … because there are simply more pages to love! Long novels should not be considered the exclusive reading fodder of pretentious lit-bros, but should be for anyone. Now is opportune for hiding out for a long period and reading that huge book you have been putting off (though it’s highly unlikely that I’ll be finishing In Search of Lost Time any time soon).

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